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Sam Tuttle’s Treasure

October 24, 2017 Featured Today No Comments


Have Gun Will Travel was a most unusual western series, running on CBS from 1958 to 1963. Its hero was Paladin (played by the inimitable Richard Boone), a cultured and well-educated San Francisco gentleman who made his living by hiring out as, well, a principled gunslinger (oxymoron?) in the Old West.
On Paladin’s holster was the image of a chess piece — a knight. Paladin was supposedly a graduate of West Point and a Union officer in the Civil War; he was as fast with a Shakespearean quotation as with his gun, and he invariably struggled to do the right thing in the challenging circumstances drawn up for him by the show’s writers.
Among those writers was Gene Roddenberry (1921-1991), known for his creation of the original Star Trek television series. One of Roddenberry’s contributions to Have Gun Will Travel was “Episode in Laredo,” which aired on September 19, 1959. Although Roddenberry’s religious views appear to have been syncretic, the “Laredo” show is, in my judgment, a Christian adumbration. Used in a classroom or conference, this 25-minute TV show is a kind of case study concerning the Gospel adjuration, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21).
I used this episode at a Catholic youth conference not long ago. I explained that the video I was showing was in black and white, having originally been shown on TV more than fifty years ago. A stunned group of young attendees stared back at me, wondering, no doubt, how anything that ancient (the video, not me [I think]) could have value to them today. I thought of C.S. Lewis’ comment about “chronological snobbery.” I also explained that there would not be any special effects, at least after an initial fistfight. (Richard Boone was good at that, by the way; he had been a boxer.)
On a “dark and stormy night,” Paladin rides into Laredo, seeking a room at the Euphoria Hotel [sic!]. He is told, however, that there is no room in the inn, for it has been reserved by the infamous gunfighter Sam Tuttle, who will appear in the morning. After the mandatory gunfight (with one of Tuttle’s henchmen), Paladin retires for the evening, intent upon leaving before Tuttle gets there the next day.
Of course, Tuttle arrives early, informing Paladin that he (Tuttle) must now kill Paladin because, if he doesn’t, every “saddlebum” in the area will come gunning for Tuttle, who, they will think, has gone soft or lost a step or two along the way. And Tuttle (played by Gene Lyons) points out the “latter-day savages” in the street, waiting for the blood-stained body (of Paladin, of course) to be carried out. Hmmm: Would we have been among the gawkers that day in Laredo?
Tuttle, though, wants to talk to the obviously educated Paladin, so they have an awkward breakfast together served by the obsequious innkeeper, Logan (played by J. Pat O’Malley). The time has come, though, and the two face off.
Paladin knows that Sam Tuttle is the fastest gun in the west, and that he can’t outdraw him, but he tells Tuttle that if Tuttle’s bullet to his heart is off by one-fourth of an inch, “my reflexes will kill you as I go down.” Tuttle is undeterred. Just as they are about to draw, however, into the hotel walk (the estranged) Eileen Tuttle and the Tuttles’ nine-year-old son.
Tuttle denies that he and “his friend” Paladin were about to have a gunfight.
Mrs. Tuttle allows her son an hour to converse with his father (whose identity has been concealed from the boy). Tuttle, who has killed 31 men to date, clearly loves his little boy, whose birthday it is, and relishes the hour he has with him. Can there be a little bit of good in the worst of us?
With time up, Mrs. Tuttle and the boy prepare to leave, but Paladin accuses both Tuttles of being fools. It is obvious, the good gunfighter says, that Mrs. Tuttle still loves Sam; and Sam loves his family. So Mrs. Tuttle generously says that she will give Sam another chance, if only he will forsake the ways of violence.
Tuttle is momentarily torn but wonders what he might do if he renounces his “profession.” Paladin, angered, asks why that should matter; if Tuttle were to dig ditches, he would still have his family. Isn’t renouncing what is worthless and evil — as Tuttle now seems, if only vaguely, to perceive — the way of happiness which will let him live and even flourish? Shouldn’t his treasure be where his heart is — with his family?
An anagnorisis is that point in a drama in which a character sees clearly and makes a life-defining decision. It’s an “ah-ha” moment. Tuttle, however, given the graced opportunity for a life of meaning with his family, rejects it, saying, “I’m important now.” People tip their hats to him, after all, and make way for him. “I like being Number One,” he says. “There’s nothing I want bad enough to give that up.” Not Eileen. Not his nine-year-old boy. Not a family life of peace and harmony in a different location.
As St. Paul taught, as if about Sam Tuttle: “What I do, I do not [truly] understand. For I do not do what I [truly] want, but I do what I hate” (Romans 7:15).
Sam says to Eileen: “I hope you find a better man next time.” She replies, caustically, that she could not do any worse. So Sam Tuttle has found his treasure. A wise decision? Who are we to judge that decision? But, of course, we can! Of course, we must!
Eileen and her little boy leave the hotel. Sam and Paladin face off again. We wait – “latter-day savages”? — for the action.
Maybe Paladin – alive — could look after Eileen, thinks Sam. Paladin says that he will not bargain that way. Sam then walks over to Paladin, telling him, improbably, to get out and, implicitly, to help his wife and son. Paladin starts away. The innkeeper, Logan, upset that no gunfight will take place (which would result in tourist dollars), shoots Sam in the back, killing him. Paladin returns fire, killing Logan. Paladin walks out, inquiring where he might find the house of Mrs. Tuttle.
Was there a moment of redemption for Tuttle in, ostensibly, letting Paladin live? Did Tuttle, though, get his “just deserts” (cf. Matt. 26:52)? How is it possible for someone to look love and meaning and tranquility in the face and reject them, choosing, instead, the path of danger and, inevitably, violent death? (Somewhere, after all, there lurked a gunfighter faster than Sam Tuttle.)
Isn’t something of Sam Tuttle’s disordered yearnings in our own mirror? Aren’t there times we choose the shadow of our own prestige, standing, ambition, or reputation over who or what genuinely matters? As the Psalm teaches: “[Lord,] turn my eyes from looking at vanities; and give me life in thy ways” (119:37 RSV).

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