Paladin returns to his room and inside a man with a gun hides. He fires and misses, and Paladin jumps him. After a vicious fight, Paladin takes his attacker down, Paladin takes the man's pistol, wakes him up, aims it at him, and demands an explanation. The young man says that his name is Roderick Jefferson, and he's a lousy gambler. To pay off his IOUs, he undertook a job to kill Paladin. Paladin says that he's met Roderick... in the mirror, ten years ago. He was receiving a small monthly remittance to not go home, and he'd come to enjoy none of his fortune. Roderick irritably tells him to just call the police and be done with it. Paladin tells him to sit down, and Roderick does so as Paladin begins his tale.
Paladin plays cards with a man named Norge who hates people in general. He loses $15,000 and Norge demands his money. When Paladin says that he can't pay, Norge tells him that he owns Delta Valley. However, he'll die if he sets foot into it at the hands of a man named Smoke. He wants Smoke dead, and says that he rode into Delta a year ago badly wounded. The townspeople nursed Smoke back to health, and Smoke killed his guards and told Norge to get out of the valley and if he ever returns, Smoke will kill him. Norge knows Paladin's war and dueling record, and says that he'll burn Paladin's IOUs if he challenges Smoke to a duel. If Paladin refuses, the alternative is jail or disgrace to Paladin's family name. Paladin agrees and burns the notes.
Soon, Paladin rides to Delta Valley and Smoke watches him... with a knight chess piece on his holster. He easily knocks Paladin out from behind. When Paladin wakes up, his horses are gone. Smoke has removed the bullets from his revolver, and steps out on a cliff above. He figures that Norge sent Paladin, and Paladin challenges him to a duel. The black clad Smoke laughs and then coughs, and admits that it will probably be the death of him because Paladin won't. Smoke says that he'll choose the weapons and place, and talks about how in the books there's a name for his opponent: a paladin. He talks about how paladins were mercenaries with a sense of honor, and asks Paladin what his price was. Smoke says that the place is freedom for him and a prison for him because there's nothing but a thousand-foot drop behind Paladin and a fence cutting the newly-named "Paladin" from escape.
Smoke walks off and Paladin confirms that he's trapped. He sets up a campfire, and that night hears Smoke coughing above as he watches him. The next day, Smoke steps out and says that killing Paladin would be like killing a small child. He tells Paladin that the fact his gun is empty is the only thing keeping him alive, and tells him to draw his gun and show him how fast he is. Paladin does so and fumbles it, and Smoke advises him to practice and not be so anxious to die. The young man promises that he'll kill Smoke, and Smoke tosses him a knife and tells him to cut away half the holster, and then soak the leather and let it draw stiff. Paladin asks for one bullet, and Smoke tells him to make his lance and arm worthy to fight him.
Paladin takes Smoke's advice and practices his draw. Smoke comes back and concedes that Paladin might eventually rank with the best. Paladin figures that Smoke will face him eventually rather than die a slow death from his illness. Smoke puts a bullet on a nearby branch, then tosses another bullet to Paladin, steps out of sight, and invites Paladin to shoot the first bullet off the branch. Paladin does so, and Smoke tells him that he'll face him at dawn.
Just before dawn, Paladin makes a campfire and adds plenty of green wood to make it give off smoke. Smoke comes out a few minutes later and tosses Paladin a bullet. Paladin loads his gun and then tosses more branches on the fire below Smoke. He points out that Smoke has the sun at his back, and Smoke steps out of the light and then starts to cough as the smoke reaches him. He wounds Paladin, but Paladin shoots his opponent and the man falls off the cliff. He goes over to Smoke, who tells Paladin that he's turned the dragon loose. The one decent thing Smoke ever did was chain Norge away from the townspeople. He wonders if Paladin will protect them, wondering where his cause is. Smoke tells Paladin that there is always a dragoon loose somewhere and dies, and Paladin closes his eyes.
Paladin takes Smoke into town and they hold a service for him thanking him for protecting the community. Paladin watches as the townspeople wonder who can take Smoke's place. The mayor asks what kind of man kills a man like Smoke, and the townspeople glare at Paladin. Afterward, Paladin comes over as the townspeople take Smoke's coffin to their cemetery. He remembers what Smoke said about causes and breaks into tears.
Later, Norge arrives in Delta Valley. Paladin calls to him from a cliff and tells him to stay there. Paladin is wearing Smoke's clothing and holster.
After finishing his story, Paladin offers Roderick a drink and they toast to Delta Valley. Norge only went back once. Paladin tells Roderick that if a man's mistakes determine what he was, then what he does about his mistakes determine what he is. Roderick offers the name of the man that sent him after Paladin, and Paladin gives him his card to write it down. He offers to take Paladin there, but Paladin declines and Roderick says that it will give him a chance to polish his rusty armor. Paladin gives him his gun back, and Roderick says that he wouldn't give a gun to a man he distrusted. The gunfighter says that he wouldn't either and leaves.
Written by Gadfly on Jul 9, 2017