#4 – S4Ep18 – “A Quiet Night In Town”
In its six years, HAVE GUN – WILL TRAVEL only did a single two-part episode, this one well into its fourth season. I don’t know the circumstances that brought it about. The few texts on the subject say that the production team just did it as a change of pace, but that somehow seems unsatisfying an explanation to me. Regardless, it’s a terrific two parts, especially in that it doesn’t given any indication in its first half of being a multi-part episode, so Paladin’s downfall and the close of the first half is genuinely surprising.
But it’s the second half, airing on January 14, 1961, that truly elevates this story. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I feel the best, most compelling episodes of the series were written by Harry Julian Fink, and here he had twice the real estate to play with. Many of Fink’s best episodes are structured in a similar way: a premise as to Paladin’s character is put forward, and then circumstances conspire to turn the screws, to see how much pressure the Man in Black can take and still remain true to what he believes about himself, and what we, the audience, believe about him.
The first half is almost all set-up, a Paladin adventure that goes horribly wrong. Mexican-Irish sheepherder Joselito Kincaid is accused of having killed three men and fled, and Paladin takes up the bounty to catch him and bring him back for trial. Transporting his prisoner, the two find themselves in Jody Town having to wait for the morning train. Paladin wires ahead to the authorities that he has Kincaid in custody, and settles into the depressed town for the night. Along the way, he meets Remy, the Deputy Sheriff who’s more interested in getting along than enforcing the law, and Dot, a woman who works at the local restaurant
Trouble starts when a quartet of local cow-punchers roll into town and end up in the restaurant along with Paladin and Kincaid. They’re bored and restless, and they wonder aloud why, given that Kincaid pays the same bounty dead or alive, Paladin bothers with transporting him. Paladin makes his position clear to the four men: he will not give his prisoner up, especially not so that they can entertain themselves by hanging him. There’s a lot of hate to go around here–the hate the cattle-men have for sheepherders, that they have for Mexicans, and even the self-loathing of one of their party who is a quarter Apache, and afraid that others will view him as such. Of the four, the most capable is Roy, Dot’s boyfriend, who’s won gunfights before, but who goes along with the others simply because they’re his friends. (Roy is played by James Best, who years later would be Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltraine on The Dukes of Hazzard, which is a little bit strange.)
As expected, the quartet attacks the makeshift cell at the back of the general store that evening, setting the place on fire and outnumbering Paladin and the reluctant Remy. The typical HAVE GUN script is flipped as Paladin is clubbed to the ground, and one of the men smashes his gun hand. They then drag Kincaid away, intending to hang him. But before they can, Kincaid plays on their anger, spitting on Culp, the quarter-breed, and provoking him into shooting Kincaid down in the street like a dog. And that’s where the first half closes out, with Paladin injured, lying in the dirt, his prisoner murdered, his oath to see that he got him a fair trial shattered. Even Johnny Western’s end theme song is eschewed in favor of a dramatic replay of the final master shot, the only time since it was adopted that it doesn’t close out an episode of the series.
Moving into the second half, Fink’s question of Paladin is put into Remy’s mouth: “Sure, I’ll hate to shoot, Paladin, so it’s sure I’ll be doing it for justice alone, hmm? What about you, Paladin? Will you still be mad when you squeeze the trigger? That’d be revenge, wouldn’t it?” With Paladin unable to let the matter lie and determined to bring the four killers to justice, how much of what drives him is a need for vengeance and to wipe away his own humiliation? And can even he determine where the line is any more?
There’s discord among the four killers as well, and they go their separate ways. Roy is shaken by the way things went down, and only Culp, who pulled the trigger, seems resigned to what happened: he tells the others to get their story straight, that Kincaid made a break for it away from Paladin and they had to shoot him. That Remy will go along with their story, and Paladin won’t have any fight left in him to challenge them. But outside, Paladin is getting to his feet, with a murderous fire burning in his heart. Remy tries to talk him out of what he clearly intends to do: “You take five bodies back, they ain’t payin’ you a nickel more. You wasn’t no match for Culp the last time you went agin’ him, with two good hands.” But neither he nor Dot can get him to relent. “You get yourself another man“, he tells Dot about Roy, for whom she is concerned, “I smell death on him.“
Still, Paladin’s right hand is useless to him. Nevertheless, he confronts Culp at the bar, and provokes the man into going for his gun. “A man died because you needed somebody to hate. I give you the same chance I gave him. Live, and stand trial. I give you that chance, even though you are a pig and a half-breed Apache squaw and your tribe eats with pigs!” As Culp pulls his weapon, Paladin cross-draws with his left hand and coldly guns him down. “Left-handed? You took a chance!” marvels Remy, responding to the gunfire. “No“, responds Paladin. “These things are my profession. He was a fool.” But when Remy asks Paladin if it’s done now, the man in Black simply asks where the others are. They didn’t pull the trigger, but they were all a part of it.
As Paladin brings Kincaid’s body in out of the gutter and re-arms himself, Dot attempts once more to get him to relent. “No. No, they killed him because they were bored, or because they didn’t like the way he spit or the way I looked at them. So he died. Well, the men who killed him will die for a better reason.” But Dot isn’t fooled “Not justice, revenge! You’re no better than they are!” Remy, too, tries to get Paladin to leave things alone now that Culp is dead. Paladin is outraged. “They wouldn’t have hung him? He died by mistake? And for nothing? Well, we’ll let it be the same with them, by mistake and for nothing!” The other two men are holed up at the train station, and Remy chooses to accompany Paladin rather than let nature take its course. “Remy, there’s something evil loose in this town.” Paladin tells him, brandishing the shackles that once held Kincaid. “I’ll give them their choice! They put these on, or they die!” As the two men head out for the station, there’s a telegram reply for Paladin, but he doesn’t stop to read it.
At the Station, it all goes bad fast. “All we wanna do is live!” insists Jory, but Paladin will have none of it. “One way or another, in court or out, I’ll make him pay! I want you, I want you both! Not as bad as I wanted Culp, but I want you. Don’t you make the same mistake he made!” Paladin gives the two men the chance to surrender themselves, but they choose to fight it out, and Remy is wounded along the way. “Was ya mad when you squeezed the trigger?” Remy asks Paladin in the aftermath, and the Man in Black quickly but unconvincingly shakes his head no. And despite all of this pointless death, he still wants Roy, the most dangerous of the lot, especially in his condition. “I still want him. I stop now, what’s all this been for?“
By the next morning, Paladin has been unable to locate Roy, and Dot comes to once again try to talk Paladin off, to no avail. And so, Roy emerges from hiding to confront his pursuer. “Now look, Paladin, I’m sick to death what we done last night. But you ain’t gonna put those leg chains on me. You wanna take my life away? Then you go ahead and try.” Paladin replies, “I don’t want your life. I don’t want revenge. You turn yourself in to Remy and I’m done with it.” And then Paladin throws the telegram he received down on the ground in front of Dot.
“Kincaid bounty cancelled“, she reads, “They found another man in Wyoming and hung him there last night.” Kincaid was innocent. As Dot cries, Roy drops his gun and accepts paladin’s shackles. “I believe he would’ve killed you” opines Remy. “I believe so“. agrees Paladin.