Horton(who played scout Flint McCullough/McCulloch on Wagon Train) is Kiowa Jones, a fiddle-footed drifter, and Baker is Amilia Rathmore, a teacher headed for a teaching assignment in Cherokee Nation, hired by the council to teach in their National Feminine Seminary, that Jones encounters early in the film.
Jones stops at an abandoned farm to draw water from the well only to find two men chained to poles and a body dead from small pox, lying near them. One, the younger, is begging for help. Suddenly a man is behind with the drop on him. Marshal Duncan(Gary Merrill) obviously has the pox as well. When it’s established Jones is no crook, he doesn’t even wear a side arm, Duncan formally drafts him as a posse man to help get the two prisoners to their hanging date at Fort Smith and Judge Isaac Parker.
Bobby Jack Wilkes(Sal Mineo) is a stone cold killer-for-hire, reputed to have gunned down twenty-twenty-five men. Skoda(Nehemiah Persoff) is a killer as well, but only because of a moment of rage. A gypsy, he married a young woman half his age, who constantly taunted him with her infidelities until that moment of rage made him put a knife in her. He’s resigned to his death, the tarot cards say it. Not so Bobby Jack. Mineo’s characterization of the killer, a laughing, cocksure young man, a wannabe Billy The Kid type, albeit one prepared for this day.
Word was out that he was being brought in for the hanging. A thousand dollar reward was on his head and Bobby had put out word that any scalphunter that freed him would get twice that from the young killer, with several stashes hidden around the area.
An encounter with a couple of bounty hunters(Val Avery and Harry Dean Stanton) sets them afoot when their horses, in a run from the pair, drop off a sudden cut-bank and have to be put out of their misery. Skoda has a broken leg from his horse rolling on it. Jones is saved when shooting from somebody drives the pair off.
That’s Amilia Rathmore on her wagon, She seems singularly unimpressed with the notion that she “must” help them, agreeing to help set the broken leg before she heads off. leaving them afoot with one man unable to walk.
And of course the two bounty hunters return and we learn a little about Jones’ character when he seems distressed at having to kill them. He’s never killed a man before and finds it even harder than killing a wounded horse. A western hero that’s conflicted about killing two men intent on killing him?
Amilia ends up returning, conscious getting to her, and the trip across the plains begins.
There’s more out there than bounty hunters. A family is after Bobby Jack for shooting down one of their own. Otto(Royal Dano), the patriarch, intends to string him up for killing his son, honor demands it, aided by his other two sons, Roy(Lonny Chapman) and Jesse(Zalman King). When Bobby Jack screams, “I was hired to do it!” the old man replies, “We already killed him.”
They encounter a hunting party of plains Indians who allow them to go on after a short confab with Jones. Here’s where the movie’s TV roots showed. I’m far from an expert on the plains Indians, but the leader of this hunting party was wearing a full war bonnet, largely for ceremonial rites use even back then if I remember correctly, certainly not for anything else but possible battle with enemies of the tribe.
They also run into Parker’s hangman, Rupe Dobie(Robert H. Harris), returning from a hanging job done in a small town. He seems to take great delight, and thought, in his work, regaling them with the problems one in his line of work faces, riling Bobby Jack to no end.
As the movie progresses, we see the pair, Jones and Amilia, getting closer, and you know how it will end. The fiddle-footed drifter, getting a little age on him, and the old maid school teacher.
Pretty much followed the plot of its source novel with a couple of exceptions. The ending was different, the whole subplot there, relating to an earlier incident included in the film, dropped and an scene from two thirds of the way through the book shifted and adjusted to make a new ending.
I enjoyed this one and wonder how a series would have developed had it been picked up.
For more overlooked movies, go check out the excellent SWEET FREEDOM maintained by Todd Mason every Tuesday.