Best of Have Gun – Will Travel – Death of a Gunfighter

#2 – S02Ep26 – “Death of a Gunfighter”

I have a great deal of affection for this episode specifically for how many times it turns the direction of the plot. Having worked in the field of storytelling for around thirty years now, I’ve got a pretty ingrained sense of where a given story is going once I’ve seen a bit of it. And yet, this particular installment manages to surprise again and again–and in the best way, where after all is said and done, all of the component parts add up to a full statement, a complete piece. If I ever teach a class in the art of storytelling, I’ll definitely be using it as a key example–but you get the substance of that would-be lecture for free here.

It was written by Harry Julian Fink as all the best episodes of Have Gun were, and it first aired on March 14, 1959.

It opens in typical fashion at the Hotel Carlson, Paladin’s residence in San Francisco. There, he reads a news item about a blood feud raging in New Mexico that has already claimed 38 lives. Pulling out his card, he pens a letter to John Sebrey, offering his services. Days later, Paladin rides into the town of Santos, where his is momentarily mistaken for Juan Carlos Morrita, a notorious gunfighter responsible for many of the deaths in the conflict. Paladin is disgusted by what he sees: there, below the gallows, is the body of Morrita’s brother, hung this morning. It’s been left out to rot in an attempt to draw Morrita out of hiding so that he can be brought to justice.

Paladin decides that he doesn’t want anything to do with this job. “Now I understand that Morrita’s a cold-blooded killer. I know that he killed your son in a gunfight that was no contest. I came here to take him for you. But I bury the dead, Mister Sebrey.“Paladin books a room for the night, and the desk clerk tells him that he was once a friend of Morrita’s. But Morrita “needs dying.

The next morning, as he prepares to ride out, Paladin is approached by a grim figure. It is Morrita, who guns down two of the men and then asks Paladin directly, “Is this your fight, mister?” Paladin tells him no. Just then, Sebrey races out one of the buildings, and Morrita shoots him as well, wounding him. As Paladin protests, Morrita coldly guns down the wounded man in the gutter, then pistol-whips Paladin and makes his escape as the desk clerk watches.

During the funeral procession for the dead men the next day, the desk clerk makes eye contact with a woman. When Paladin asks, the clerk tells him that this woman is engaged to Morrita, and asks Paladin if he’s going after Morrita, if he feels he owes that to Sebrey. “I owe it to him. I owe it to myself.” So alone, Paladin rides out. So far, events seem very straightforward–but we’re about to come to the first of several reversals.

Three weeks later, Paladin stops off at a local sheriff’s office hoping to get information on Morrita’s whereabouts. The sheriff is unsympathetic to Paladin, and he directs the Man in Black’s attention to a newspaper. “Amnesty. Three years of violence ended today when a general amnesty was declared in the bloody Wren/Sebrey feud in New Mexico. The amnesty was called by Major-General Thomas Hardy. The involved principles of both sides have laid down their arms and taken oaths to keep the peace. General Hardy said anyone breaking the amnesty would be summarily court-martialed and executed. Among those taking the oath was Juan Morrita.” But Paladin’s personal sense of justice won’t let him give up the chase yet, despite the fact that, if he breaks the amnesty himself by killing Morrita, he will be the one who hangs.

Again, from here, the premise seems to be set, but it isn’t, not yet. In pursuit, Paladin is ambushed by Morrita, who is as fast on the draw as his legends say. But he holds his fire. “Mister, I don’t want to kill you. I don’t know you, I have no hate for you. I don’t want to kill again.” And Morrita throws away his gun. “I put my life in your hands. I won’t kill you. I won’t kill again. Mister, I give you two hundred dollars, all I have. Take me home, alive. Do not let anyone lay a gun on me till I get there. Take me home so I can see my people. A man should die among his people. And I will not wear a gun again!” Confused but moved by Morrita’s genuine remorse, Paladin agrees.

On the trail, the two gunfighters bond, as Morrita shows off the speed of his hands. but he is haunted by the men he has killed. “I pray for sleep. I pray, and then I dream of them. Twelve men. I was an altar boy, Paladin. I was this close to God when I was a child. And now I have killed twelve men. I see their faces, I cannot forget them. If I cannot, Paladin, can the others?” But Morrita wants to return to Santos to marry Maria, the girl he left behind.

Again, it seems that events should play out in a certain manner from here, but they once more take another path. Making their way back to Santos, Paladin and Morrita arrive in the shadow of the gallows. Amid the uneasy stares of the people, Paladin asks why the gallows is still standing after all this time. “For him. For his kind. As a warning.” one townsperson replies. And way in the background, Maria and the desk clerk stand close together, watching Morrita’s return.

That evening, Morrita throws a high-spirited party to celebrate his engagement to Maria, whom he introduces to Paladin. He seems a changed man, and tells Paladin to dance with his bride. But as Paladin and Maria dance, she beckons him to a secluded area to speak–she has something she wishes to tell him while Morrita is out of earshot. She doesn’t want to marry Morrita–for all his animal grace, in his absence, she has fallen for another, and she is concerned that if Morrita finds out, he will kill her intended. “No more, Maria. It’s finished. I believe him. ” Paladin tells her. “Then you don’t know him.” she replies.

As Maria presses her point, Paladin agrees that if Morrita tries to kill her new love, Paladin will stop him. But Morrita has heard the tail end of this exchange, and as Maria confesses that she does not want to marry him, his heart first breaks and then grows cold. He demands the name of Maria’s lover–and the desk clerk steps forward. (He tells Morrita, “You know my name!’ even though he hasn’t been given a name in the episode. But the credits list him as Will Haskell) Morrita slaps him, asks him if he owns a gun, and promises to meet him the next morning. “Die big, mister. Maybe she’ll cry for you!

The next morning, as Morrita approaches the hotel, Paladin attempts to dissuade his friend from this action. “I haven’t worn my gun. I ask you this as a favor.” But Morrita is resolute, and the desk clerk wearing his own gun, emerges from the hotel, determined not to hide from Morrita. Paladin decks Morrita, then turns to hustle the desk clerk back into the hotel. But Morrita takes this opportunity to shoot the clerk in the back. He’s badly wounded, but Paladin is able to get him back into the hotel. And then, reluctantly, he straps on his gun belt.

I said it once, Paladin. Seems a long time ago. I don’t want to kill you.” Morrita tells Paladin as he approaches behind him. “You could give up your gun. You could let them hang you. That’s what they’d do for breaking the amnesty, isn’t it?” Paladin replies. Morrita begins to walk away, then turns and draws. But too slow–and Paladin guns down his friend. With remorse, Paladin approaches Morrita’s now-lifeless body, as it sits in the shadow of the gallows noose that has been waiting for him the entire episode.

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