S06Ep08 – “The Predators”
This was the first episode of HAVE GUN – WILL TRAVEL that I ever watched, having become interested in the series based on what I’d been told by Marvel writer David Walker. This one was from the very last season of the show, and originally aired on November 3, 1962. And to my good fortune, it was, I believe, the last episode penned by Harry Julian Fink, the best of all of the HAVE GUN writers. HAVE GUN had a very strong batting average in terms of the quality of its episodes–there are few out-and-out stinkers. But the episodes written by Fink tend to be the finest of the series. In part, this is due to the fact that Fink was more willing to let matters get dark and more willing to push the protagonist Paladin’s situation to the breaking point in order to see just how much pressure the Man In Black’s morality could stand. Had I come in on some other episode, I might not have continued to watch the series, and so I would have been deprived of its virtues.
In this particular episode, Fink reverses the polarity on his usual approach to the series. Typically, a Fink script drops Paladin into a scenario in which his personal code is challenged in some way, and the tension and drama comes from seeing how the Dark Rider responds as more and more pressure builds up within the situation. But in this episode, the question isn’t so much when Paladin will break as it is when Paladin will accept that he’s made a mistake in judgment and humble himself by reversing his course.
The story begins with one of the most stylish shots in the programs history. Rather than beginning at the Hotel Carlton like so many other episodes, this one opens on a dry, dusty desert. The camera hones in on a lone figure, standing in the middle of nowhere before a dead horse. Then slowly, out of the dust behind the man appears Paladin, himself also on foot. “You and this country have already cost me a good horse.” says Paladin after he gets the man to identify himself as John Tyree, the man he’s been pursuing for having killed a U.S. Marshall. But Tyree insists that he didn’t kill the Marshall in question. Paladin doesn’t care–that’s for a Judge to decide. And when Tyree tries to draw on him, Paladin easily outguns him, but does not wound him–Paladin’s shot is stopped by Tyree’s canteen, though the impact knocks him off his feet. Paladin chains his prisoner, but now the two men are lost, on foot, in the desert with only what water Paladin has left in his own canteen to hold them over for the duration of their long, hot walk.
So the pair sets out, but despite Paladin’s wilderness skills, no source of additional water can be located–they’re all dried up. As they rest, Tyree once again protests his innocence, saying that he liked the man who was killed. Paladin is unmoved–the Marshall had been staked out to die, and he intends to see justice get done. “You’ve got a bad disposition, and a big mouth.” Paladin says after Tyree jumps him in a bit for freedom. But their water has run out, and Tyree prevents Paladin from throwing the empty canteen away in disgust, telling him of having seen a man in a similar situation years before come across water an hour after discarding his vessel, and having no way to transport it.
And so the pair continue to trek onward. “I tracked you for six weeks through this country,” Paladin tells Tyree, “You know it like the back of your hand. Where are we going to find water?“Tyree suggests that they head for the Times spread, where water has always been plentiful in the past. But he doesn’t believe that Paladin will be able to last the journey. On their way, the two men come across another dead body, staked out in the manner of Tyree’s supposed victim. The duo also find a discarded bonnet nearby, indicating there had been a woman there as well. “You don’t suppose I did this? ” asks Tyree innocently. Paladin is skeptical, and asks Tyree about an earlier killing in Texas. “I did kill a man, but that was long ago and far away and he had a gun in his hand,” And then Tyree asks the fundamental question that will drive the rest of the episode: “Now will you take these chains off?” “Not yet“, Paladin coldly tells his prisoner.
Some time later, the two men approach the Times place, which is seemingly deserted. They open up the covered well and attempt to pull up a bucket of fresh water–but they get only dust and sand for their trouble. Tyree begins to approach the house, when suddenly he’s shot in the leg by a rifle from inside the structure. Both he and Paladin are forced to take cover behind the well. Now Paladin has to make a choice–he may be able to circle around and get the drop on their attackers, but in order to do so, he’s going to need to give the wounded Tyree his rifle and trust him to provide covering fire. “Friend, you wouldn’t shoot me in the back?” Paladin asks. “Friend, if I was gonna shoot you it wouldn’t be in the back.” Tyree tells him–and Paladin hands over the rifle.
Bursting in through the back door, Paladin finds himself covered by their two attackers, a young girl and an even younger boy. “Miss, tell him to put that down on the floor, that weapon gives him adult status” Paladin warns, and after a tense moment the girl tells the boy, Tommy, to put his gun down. Tyree then appears, having hobbled to the back door on his wounded leg. Paladin asks the girl for some water, but she refuses. “We got less than a gallon. It’s for the boy.” But in the end she agrees to give the two men half a cup each. Seizing an opportunity, Tyree levels his rifle at Paladin’s back and asks for the key to his shackles. “You are a liar and a cheat and a coward” says Paladin as he begins to draw his concealed Derringer. But Tyree’s shot leg gives out before Paladin can fire, and he falls to the floor. Paladin helps him to a nearby chair.
The girl tells Paladin that when the well went dry, the family gathered up all the water they had and headed out for Fort Apache. But they were set upon by a dozen marauders who killed Tommy’s father. The girl and Tommy ran back to their homestead as she didn’t know the way to Fort Apache, and they’ve been holed up here ever since. The girl has Paladin move Tyree to the bed, where she intends to remove the bullet from his leg. She asks Paladin to take his chains off, and Paladin stoically replies, “No, ma’am.“
The next morning dawns, and both Paladin and the girl are surprised that an attack by the marauders didn’t come during the night. “What will you do?” Paladin asks the girl. “Will you stay here?” The girl tells Paladin and the eavesdropping Tyree that the land is theirs and that they have no other recourse. Tommy would be sent to an orphanage, and she would be facing an uncertain future if she went back to civilization now. “Mister, I’ve been an orphan. Now I want to sink my roots, and raise a family, and nourish them, and them nourish me. Among the Apache, I was called Nidocuche, which means Daughter of a Brave Warrior, because my father died well defending my mother and myself. Since I was ten and taken from the Apache, I have scrubbed floors and made beds and done many things, which I have not had to do since coming here, and I will not do anymore. I will send Tommy to the Fort and go live with the Apaches if I can find no one with which to share my life.“
This conversation is interrupted by a noise from outside, and peering out the window, Paladin can see the band of marauders making their way up the trail towards the now-dry well. As they prepare to fight for their lives, Tyree asks Paladin again to unchain him from the bed. “Not just yet” Paladin tells him, despite their dire situation. But Paladin does give him the rifle. “If you shoot me friend, I’ll never forgive myself, even if it’s an accident.” Tyree replies through gritted teeth, “If I do shoot you it won’t be no accident.” Paladin heads outside to confront the men, carrying concealed on his person a bundle of dynamite that he salvaged from the farm’s shed.
Brandishing his rifle, Paladin steps forward to face the new arrivals. They number only six now, the others having fallen to thirst or wounds over the course of the past few days. They want water, and they say that they’ll leave Paladin and the others unmolested if he allows them to drink their fill from the well. Paladin addresses the leader of the marauders, the one on the horse: “I’m gonna ask you three questions. You tell me the truth, I’ll know it. You can haul that bucket up, take your fill, and go on your way. You lie to me, I’ll know that too, and I’ll kill you. No matter what happens to them, no matter what happens to the men in that house with those rifles on you, no matter what happens to me, I’ll kill you.“
Paladin gets the leader to confirm that he and his men tortured and killed Tommy’s father, and that they also killed the U.S.Marshall several weeks before. And so he allows them to draw from the well, knowing that it’s dry. As they move in, he moves back to find cover at the side of the house–and when the marauders realize that the well is dry, a firefight breaks out. As the two sides battle, Paladin inadvertently throws a stick of dynamite into the dry well, where it explodes, sending up a cascade of water.
In the aftermath of the battle, Paladin returns to the house, inside of which Tyree and the girl appear to have become closer. He pulls the key to Tyree’s shackles from his belt and finally undoes the man’s chains. “Friend, I don’t make many mistakes.” “You go to the devil…friend.” Tyree replies with an easy smile. As Paladin turns to go, the girl asks him to send for the Preacher. Paladin tells the girl that Tyree has a bad nature. “I know.” she replies.
Before he heads out on the long walk across the desert to town, Paladin pauses at the now-overflowing well and fills his canteen, the one that he almost hurled away in anger earlier in the episode. That done, he splashes some water on himself, gives the newly-founded family a quick salute-wave, and heads off into the distance.