#3 – S02Ep31 – “The Man Who Lost”
In a number of ways, this episode is the quintessential distillation of writer Harry Julian Fink’s approach to his assorted HAVE GUN – WILL TRAVEL assignments. He would drop Paladin down into a murky situation and then ramp up the tension and the stakes, testing the character to see just how far he could be pushed before he’d break or bend. Fink made that a subtext of other episodes, but here it is the text, the central conflict that Paladin faces.
The episode first aired in April 25, 1959 and was directed by Ida Lupino, a pioneering actress-turned-director.
As was the case in most episodes, the story begins at the Hotel Carlson in San Francisco with a bit of business showcasing Paladin’s regular life as a gentleman and a dandy. Here, he’s confronted by a jilted lover before turning his attention to the newspapers and the prospect of employment. A piece about Benjamin Coey killing a rancher and raping the man’s wife catches his eye. Coey has eluded capture and killed two of the posse pursuing him so far. As is his way, Paladin pulls out his business card.
We cut to some time later as Paladin and a guide are on the trail of Coey. But a huge storm is about to break, and the guide, John, will go no further. Here, we learn that Paladin has been contracted by Joe Gage, the woman’s brother, just to try to bring Coey back. He’ll get $500 for just the attempt, and a full $1000 if he can bring Coey back alive. The guide tells him to take the $500, that Coey has killed three men so far, and that if Paladin sees him, he should shoot first. But Paladin does it the hard way. He catches up to Coey, disarms and beats the man, and brings him back to the way station in shackles. Coey, for his part, insists that he is innocent of the original robbery and assault.
Paladin is forced to hole up with his prisoner at the way station when the guide won’t sell him the horses to make the 60 mile trip to the county seat. “You’ll get paid, friend, whether he goes back pig or pork. Give him to Joe Gage. he has a right to him.” It’s not worth it to John to make an enemy of Joe Gage by helping Paladin get back to town with his prisoner. He does let Paladin have a room to keep Coey locked up in, but he tells him, “Joe Gage will come. Don’t fight him.“
Coey continues to insist that he is innocent of the crimes, and when Paladin promises Coey that he will get a fair trial, he responds, “And then they hang me. There’s only one thing wrong with that: I didn’t kill him. I never saw that woman in my life.” The question of Coey’s guilt or innocence looms large over the episode. When Will Gage rides up to the station, Coey takes the opportunity to try to make a break for it, and Paladin needs to both save him from Will and take him back into custody, without killing either man. Coey and Paladin continue to converse as they wait out the storm, and Coey tells Paladin straight up that when it comes down to it, “You’ll run. You’ll back away. It won’t make sense not to. You’ll ask yourself why, why die because of a man like me? And it just won’t be worth the trouble.”
Three days of waiting later, Joe Gage finally arrives at the way station. Gage is resolute, he offers Paladin the promised thousand dollars for Coey. “I’ll pick up that money in the County Seat, after I’ve earned it.” replies Paladin, coldly. Gage is willing to wait, though, until his sister arrives to identify Coey as her attacker. But he tells Paladin, “If she says he’s the one, I ain’t gonna risk a gunfight with ya. I’ll use a shotgun. Won’t be enough of you left to bury.“
As the woman arrives, Paladin tells Coey that, guilty or not, he’ll get his trial, assuming that Paladin lives. Coey continues to insist that he’s innocent, but he’s resigned to his fate, telling Paladin that he can just say that he did it. It’s a super-creepy scene as the woman is brought into the room and we hold on the moment for several seconds–before Coey nastily says, “Hello, beauty” and she breaks down. There’s no question of his guilt any longer, and Paladin knows it.
But even this isn’t enough to sway Paladin. “The storm is just about over. I will be taking him in now.” John has saddled horses for Paladin and his prisoner, but he’s also given Joe Gage the shotgun he asked for. The Gage brothers are set up in the barn, under cover. Paladin goes out first to confront them. “In a week you can see him hang. Let it be that way.” he tells Joe Gage. Gage offers Paladin an addition thousand dollars to walk away and let him have Coey. But the Man in Black is unmoving. “I told you, he’s not for sale.”
Gage lifts his shotgun to fire, and Paladin guns him down before he can get off a shot, then leaps prone to avoid his brother’s fire before wounding the younger man in the leg. “This thing you talk about, this justice.“, asks John, coming up in the aftermath, “You think it was worth it, worth all this?” And Richard Boone looks up, directly into the camera, and replies, “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have done it.“