#1 – S02Ep01 – “The Manhunter”
Without question, the second season opener of HAVE GUN – WILL TRAVEL is my favorite episode of the series, one that I’ve watched a dozen times and always come back to. It’s beautifully directed by Buzz Kulik, who performed such duties with some regularity on the series, and the guest cast, in particular Joseph Calleia as Sheriff Sam Truett and Martin Balsam as Charlie Dawes, is in fine form. As is the star, Richard Boone. At this point, Boone was still in the early portion of his association with the show, he hadn’t yet grown bored and restless with it, so his portrayal of Paladin in this episode is wonderfully nuanced. There are points where the frustration of his circumstances causes Paladin to act out poorly, and Boone navigates those moments without losing the viewer’s sympathy.
This was the first episode of the series written by Harry Julian Fink, and it follows Fink’s usual paradigm of giving Paladin a moral challenge and then turning up the fire. In this instance, at every point, Paladin attempts to do what he thinks is right by his own moral code, and these choices get him in hotter and hotter water. The question, as it always is in a Fink script, is at what point will Paladin break? It first aired on September 13, 1958.
The episode opens typically, with Paladin at the Hotel Carlton in San Francisco, where his attention is drawn to an item in a Kansas newspaper. The manhunt for Jimmy Dawes, wanted for murder, has been called off as Dawes has escaped over the State border into Colorado and there is no provision for inter-state extradition. Sensing a situation where he can ply his trade, Paladin pulls out his business card.
We next see him deep in Colorado territory, hot on the trail of young Jimmy Dawes, who takes aim at Paladin with a rifle from high ground. Paladin tells him that he will get paid whether Dawes comes back with him or not, but Dawes is wanted for a killing and he needs to stand trial. Paladin assures the boy it will be a fair hearing, but Dawes is making for home, and he shoots Paladin’s horse out from under him. In the ensuing gunfight, Paladin kills Dawes–and his face shows us his regret when he realizes just how young the boy was. Rather than taking the body back to Kansas and claim his fee, Paladin instead decides to deliver it back to Dawes’ home, where he can be properly buried. This is his first mistake.
All eyes are upon Paladin as he rides into town on Dawes’ horse with the boy’s body draped over the saddle, and a crowd forms around him as he approaches the office of the Sheriff, Sam Truett. Truett makes his disdain for Paladin and the way he makes his living very plain, and he’s not impressed with the warrant paperwork Paladin shows him or Paladin’s account of what went down between him and Dawes and how he was forced to kill Dawes to defend himself. “Murdered, gunfighter, murdered. That’s the word for it, I think.” (It’s a particular tick of Fink’s writing style that people refer to Paladin by the derogatory “gunfighter.” He’s the only writer who does this, so if somebody calls Paladin “gunfighter” in an episode, you can be sure it’s a Fink script.)
Truett orders Paladin off of the horse and demands his gun. “You’ve earned your blood-money. Now you just be here tomorrow for the inquest. Until then, you keep away from me. The sight of you makes me sick to my stomach.” Paladin is tired and irritable at this point, and disquieted by the old Sheriff’s rebuke and the hostility of the town. He goes to the local hotel, but the bell clerk refuses him a room, saying that the townspeople will ask him why he did it. “Landlord, I’m tired…“, sneers Paladin, barely keeping his temper under control, “…and I’m almost out of patience. You tell people I gave you no choice, and I’d like my key please.” It’s about as close as we ever see Paladin come to being a bully, and as he goes up to his room, the bellman warns him that he should sleep lightly.
This, it turns out, is good advice, for James Dawes has three brothers, and that evening, the youngest of the three breaks into Paladin’s room and tries to cut him down while he sleeps. But Paladin hears him coming, and throws him back out of the room. not wanting to kill another man. At the inquest the next morning, the judge has no choice but to absolve Paladin of wrongdoing in James Dawes’ death, given that he is the only witness and that Dawes was a fugitive, but the people of the town, and indeed, the judge himself, aren’t happy about it.
Out front of the courthouse, Paladin tries to retrieve his firearm from Sheriff Truett, who tells Paladin that Dawes’ other two brothers, Charlie and Clay, are sure to come after him as well, and they are far more seasoned. “Are you sweating, gunfighter?” Truett asks when Paladin tries to ascertain the location of the older Dawes brothers. “It’s a hot day“, replies Paladin, “I sweat like anyone else.” Truett wants to avoid bloodshed in his town, so he orders Paladin to leave before sundown, when Charlie and Clay are due back. “I don’t want to have to hang a good man for killing a thing like you.” The Sheriff tells Paladin he’ll return the Man in Black’s gun as he leaves, and when Paladin lays hands on him, he pulls his own gun and levels it at Paladin’s midsection. “Give me an excuse. I remember that boy, I had a warm feeling for him. Now there’s your saddle.” Paladin slinks off, but nobody in town will sell him a horse, so he’s forced to wait for the 3:00 Stage.
As 3:00 rolls around, Truett meets Paladin out by the street and returns his weapon to him. But he quotes an old, little-enforced ordinance against wearing a gun within the town limits, and he forbids Paladin from strapping it on unless he wants to spend 7 days in a cell. “You abuse your badge, old man, and you don’t really have the strength to back it up. But I have a deep respect for the law…and I’m not gonna push it.“So, awkwardly lugging his saddle and his gun belt, Paladin angrily walks to the Stage. But as he hands his gear up, two figures enter the shot and tell the driver to throw it back down again.
“I’m not wearing a gun, Mister Dawes” announces Paladin as Charlie Dawes orders the Stage to ride out. Sheriff Truett attempts to intercede, and Dawes pistol-whips him to the ground. “He said he was your friend, what kind of an animal are you?” asks Paladin. Dawes tells Paladin that he and his brothers intend to kill him at sundown, whether he’s wearing a weapon or not. “You think about dying for a while, like my brother must have done. Then we’ll come for you. And when we come for you, you gonna die.” Paladin is unmoved. “Dawes, in that holster is a hand-crafted weapon. I’m an expert in its use. But I have killed only, I hope, when there was no other choice left me. No man has a right to do more than that. I am not legally at fault for your brother’s death, nor morally at fault either. Now you think on that till sundown. Also that I may not be the only one to die on this street before nightfall. ” As Paladin walks away, Dawes gently asks the Sheriff to stay out of it. “Sam, two or three hours, it’ll be over. Now, don’t do anything foolish. Don’t make me kill you.“
As the sun draws low, the Dawes brothers take up positions around Paladin’s hotel. Sheriff Truett, his arm in a sling, shows up at Paladin’s hotel room with a rifle, offering his assistance. “I don’t plan to see them murder you, not in my town.” Paladin takes the rifle away from him. “I don’t want you, old man. Not at all. But I can use your gun.” As Charlie Dawes calls to Paladin from down in the street, Sheriff Truett plaintively mutters, “I could help you…” as the Man in Black goes to meet his fate. Unexpectedly, the bell clerk warns Paladin that Ben Dawes is waiting out back with a shotgun, and Paladin is able to get the drop on him, wounding him in the leg. Paladin stands over Ben Dawes, ordering his brothers to drop their weapons.
“If not now, then some day, gunfighter, ” Charlie Dawes tells Paladin, “I won’t forget, and I won’t stop.” Paladin rises to face his accuser. “Dawes, I won’t keep you waiting. There’d be no point. And besides, I think I owe you something for Sam Truett. ” With that, Paladin closes with his enemy, draws his gun and pistol-whips the revolver out of Dawes’ hand before pushing the muzzle of his own weapon right up in the other man’s face. “Now I’m going to say this to you once more. I killed your brother, yes. I had to. Killing that boy is a thing I regret, but if you push me any further, you or your brothers, ever, I won’t shoot one of you in the leg and hold my fire on the other one. I won’t chance it a second time. ” As Paladin turns away, Clay Dawes goes for his weapon, but his brother stops him. “Leave it be. It’s finished.“
Back in the hotel, Paladin encounters a forlorn Sam Truett coming down the stairs. “My apologies, Mister Truett. but it’s a thing I felt I could do best alone.” Truett regards Paladin sadly. “There was a time when no man could’ve done to me what Charlie Dawes did today. Or what you did, either. There was a time, gunfighter.” Paladin nods in sympathy. “I know that, sir. I’m sure of it.” And as the old Sheriff slinks away back towards his office, Paladin wearily picks up his saddle once more and heads out into the town to find himself a horse.