In San Francisco, Paladin is meeting with Mr. Laird who wants to hire
Paladin to escort a $500,000 shipment of gold bullion from Phoenix.
Paladin isn't interested in taking on the job for less than $10,000 and
Laird says that he'll have to check with his partners. When he says that
he'll be back the next day, Paladin warns him that he may have taken
another job by then.
At the Barton Ranch in Three Rivers, CA, the ranch's cook, Nate collapses at the Bartons' ranch house. Owner Sam and his son Tom come out and take Nate to their office. Since the local doctor is out of town, Sam sends Tom to get the female doctor, Dr. Phyllis Thackeray. She confirms that Nate has smallpox and is running a fever. Worse, as the cook he may have infected the other ranch hands with smallpox while serving food. Sam wants to have Tom take Nate to town, but Phyllis warns him that they could infect everyone there. She assures the Bartons that she can have a nearby fort deliver smallpox vaccine in five days, but Sam doesn't want to wait even though Tom hesitantly suggests that the doctor knows best. Phyllis grabs a rifle and threatens to shoot Sam, but he calls her bluff. However, he pauses when she warns him that he'll infect himself if he touches Nate. Sam storms out and Tom agrees to help her, and Phyllis asks him to deliver the telegram requesting the vaccine. Tom warns her that the ranch hands have been out in the range for six months and are completing their round-up. They'll want their money and the chance to go into Stockton to spend it. Phyllis insists that they can't leave and risk infecting others, and gives Tom Paladin's card.
Paladin gets the wire from Phyllis just as Laird comes back and agrees to pay him the $10,000. The gunslinger tells him that he's received a better offer and leaves for Three Rivers. He rides to the ranch house where Sam greets him, insisting that the telegram was a mistake. Sam tells Paladin to go back to San Francisco, but Paladin refuses and demands to know where Phyllis is. Tom tries to stop his father, who calls his son a coward. Exasperated, Paladin finally grabs Tom and demands to know where he can find Phyllis. Tom sends him to the office and Phyllis lets Paladin in and bolts the door behind her.
Phyllis explains the situation and Paladin says that he's been vaccinated. The doctor is clearly on the thin edge of exhaustion after watching Nate for 24 hours, but insists that they keep Nate's condition secret to avoid panicking the ranch hands. Worse, the range boss, Frank Cooley, is an experienced gunfighter, so Phyllis needs Paladin to help her. He agrees immediately and tells her to get some rest. Phyllis reluctantly lies down for 20 minutes and Paladin gives her a kiss. As she dozes off, she worries that Paladin may not have up-to-date vaccinations but he goes to Nate and keeps the cook cool with compresses.
Cooley and his men ride up, whooping and firing their guns, and Sam and Tom go out to greet them. The ranch hands are in no mood to wait and Cooley gives the Bartons until he can pack a few things to get their money. As the hands ride off, Phyllis wakes up and tells Paladin that Nate is reaching the crisis point. Paladin goes out and tells the Bartons that the hands are their employees and one of them will need to order them to stay. Sam isn't convinced that there's any danger but tells Paladin that he'll hold the gunfighter responsible if he injures his man. Tom warns that Cooley won't back down and Sam insists that his son handle the situation. Paladin tells Tom to man up because he won't always have a hired gun to back him, and Tom goes out to find Cooley and talk.
As Sam and Paladin wait, Sam tries to convince himself that Tom has succeeded. He admits to Paladin that his son is weak, but Paladin figures that Sam doesn't want a son that will stand up to him. The ranch owner insists that Paladin knows nothing about him, but admits that he wishes Tom would stand up to him, even though he'd crack his son's skull if he did.
Cooley and the ranch hands approach the house, dragging Tom with them. As Sam and Paladin go out, one of the cowboys, Steve Pauley, isn't interested in sticking around. Cooley asks Sam if Tom was joking, but Sam says that he wants them to stay... without saying wise. The range boss says that they're taking the beef to Stockton whether Sam likes it or not, and tells Sam to get their money out of the safe in his office. When Sam refuses, Cooley figures that his employer isn't telling him the full story and tells Sam that they'll break in and take their money if he doesn't give in.
Paladin steps forward for the first time and Cooley realizes that he's facing a gunslinger. The range boss gives Sam an hour, but Steve pushes it and tells Paladin that they're riding out right now. When he tries to draw on Paladin, Paladin shoots him in the shoulder. Cooley and his men take the injured hand with them, warning that they'll be back.
While Paladin and the Bartons wait, Paladin checks on Phyllis. She says that Nate is approaching the crisis point and asks Paladin to talk to her so she can stay awake. He talks about their relationship since they met and how neither one of them is ready to give up their lives to be with the other. When Phyllis realizes that he's telling her why he won't propose marriage, she smiles and asks how many women he's done that for. Smiling back, Paladin admits that she's the first one. Nate wakes up and calls for Phyllis, who confirms that his fever has broken and he'll recover. Paladin holds Phyllis tight and she tells him that they understand each other.
As Paladin goes to the basement to get some cold water, Sam and Tom discuss the situation. Sam figures that they called Cooley's bluff but his son warns him that the range boss isn't bluffing. Cooley and the ranch hands barge in and demand their rages. Sam tries to stop them but Cooley shoves him aside and ignores Tom when he orders them to stop. They barge into the office and Phyllis tells them that Nate has been ill. When Cooley goes over to his friend, he realizes that Nate has smallpox and backs away in fear. Phyllis tries to stop him, saying that the vaccine is on its way, but a panicked Cooley slaps her across the face and runs out.
When Paladin hears the noise, he comes back and finds the slap mark on Phyllis' face. Furious, he runs out after Cooley, throws him off his force, and beats him without mercy. Tom finally knocks Paladin away and aims a rifle at him. Taking command, he tells Paladin that he's in charge and that Cooley is his responsibility. Phyllis comes out and assures Paladin that she's fine, while Tom tells Paladin to leave Cooley to him. Paladin backs down and Tom leads Cooley off, while Sam stares at his son in surprise.
Later, the vaccine arrives and Phyllis gives the first inoculation to Paladin. Cooley and the others, afraid of the needle, nervously line up outside. When Cooley tries to walk away, Tom shoves him back into line. Exasperated, Sam tells his employees that there's nothing to worry about and goes in, but closes his eyes and braces himself as Phyllis prepares to give him his inoculation.
Written by Gadfly on Feb 26, 2018