The “film” that I would like to highlight is actually an episode of a long-forgotten television series from the 1960’s.  Laredo, which aired on NBC from 1965 to 1967, was a western that focused on the adventures of a group of Texas Rangers based in the south Texas town of Laredo.  Laredo was written as a serious western, but one that clearly had a sense of humor about its subject.

The final episode of the series, entitled “Split the Difference,” was structured around the probate of the will of a notorious outlaw named Jake Ringo.  The episode (which was not filmed with the idea that it would be the final episode; it just turned out that way) focuses on the phenomenon of the dead using will provisions to control the lives of the living.  In that sense, “Split the Difference” follows squarely in the tradition of Ambrose Bierce’s “The Famous Gilson Bequest,” which may well have inspired the episode.  It also plays around with one of the cardinal principles of westerns — that once the bad guys make it across the border the good guy law enforcement officers have to stop chasing them.

I remember watching the episode live on April 7, 1967, but my memory has been greatly refreshed by what I found on the Internet.

Following the death of Jake Ringo letters are sent to seven individuals by lawyer E. J. Morse informing them that they have been named as beneficiaries under Ringo’s will and are entitled to share in Ringo’s estate which consists of $75,000 in cash.  The reading of the will is to be conducted shortly in the Halfway Mansion in the town of Mexas, located on the Texas-Mexico border.  Not only in Mexas exactly on the border but the mansion straddles the border line so that part of the structure is in Texas and part in Mexico.  A white floor stripe, marked Texas on one side and Mexico on the other, actually runs throughout the house advising occupants of the country in which they are standing at any given moment.  (Given the Rio Grande River, this seems impossible, but few 1960’s television shows were sticklers for such details.)

Recipients of the letter included the judge who convicted Ringo and sentenced him to death, the hangman who presided over his execution, a renegade Indian woman named Linda Little Trees, three notorious outlaws: Gypsy John Fuentes, Belle Bronson, and Smiley Hogg, and Texas Ranger Captain Richard Parmalee, the leader of the Rangers in Laredo and the moral center of the show.  Parmalee was also the man that apprehended Ringo and made possible his conviction and execution.  (Parmalee was played by actor Philip Carey who went on to a long career (1979-2007) as the Texas patriarch Asa Buchanan on the ABC soap opera One Life to Live.)

Over the objections of several of his fellow Rangers, Parmalee decides to go to Mexas so that he can recover the entire $75,000 which he is certain is stolen and which can be returned it to the banks from which it was taken.  Moreover, two of the letter recipients, Little Trees and Hogg, are wanted for murder in Texas, and this would provide him with an opportunity to capture them and bring them back for trial.  For back-up Parmalee agrees to take two of the Rangers with him.

Unfortunately, the judge and the hangman are not able to attend the reading of the will, having been murdered by Little Trees and her henchman, Blue Dog, in the episode’s opening scene.  However, the other four devisees and Parmalee all make their way to Mexas. 

When the Rangers arrive at the house, they find that the other participants have strategically placed themselves inside the Halfway Mansion.  Little Trees and Hogg, wanted for murder in Texas, stay in the portion of the building in Mexico, while Belle and Gypsy, both wanted for murder in Mexico, have taken up residence in the Texas part of the house.   (We also learned that the beautiful Belle Bronson and the Captain once had a thing for each other, but that he broke off the relationship because she wouldn’t give up her outlaw ways.)

Once the group is assembled, the lawyer Morse informs them that to qualify for their inheritance, each of the devisees must spend the night in the Halfway Mansion.   Those who are still alive the following morning are to split the $75,000 evenly.  It becomes apparent that Ringo’s will was drafted in such a way as to encourage his enemies on both sides of the law to kill each other off.

The Rangers retire to an upstairs bedroom for the evening, but loud noises bring them back downstairs where they find, distressingly for this viewer, that the lawyer Morse has been murdered.  When Smiley Hogg bursts into the room firing a gun that, unbeknownst to him, is loaded with blanks, he is gunned down by the Rangers, reducing the number of living devisees to four (and the number of lawyers to zero).

Suddenly, the gas lights go off, another shot is fired, and when the lights come back on Belle is lying on the floor, fatally wounded.  At this point, the momentarily grieving Parmalee (and presumably most of the western-loving 1967 audience) realizes that something is wrong with the picture.  Just as the Rangers figure out that Ringo is probably still alive, the outlaw appears in the room with a shotgun pointed at the survivors.  It also becomes apparent that the Indian miscreant Linda Little Trees is in cahoots with Ringo and that the two have planned this event to rid themselves of their enemies.  (The hangman and possibly the judge were presumably bribed to let Ringo go, only to be later murdered by their accomplices.)

Little Trees and Blue Dog escort the Rangers back upstairs at gunpoint while Ringo shoots Gypsy in the parlor on the first floor.  When the Rangers reach their room they find three nooses hanging from the ceiling, installed by Ringo so that they can experience the fate to which he had been sentenced. 

In yet another plot twist, it turns out that Ringo only pretended to shoot Gypsy and the two of them climb the stairs with the intention of double crossing Little Trees and killing both Indians and all three Rangers.  However, at the last minute Little Trees herself realizes that she is about to be betrayed by Ringo, so she turns around and shoots Gypsy before he can fire his gun.  She then grabs the $75,000 and takes off.  No longer held at gunpoint, the Rangers are able to subdue both Blue Dog and Ringo and later catch up with Little Trees.  Because they are able to capture her on the Texas side of the house, they can now arrest her for murder.

Little Trees, played by Will and Grace actress Shelly Morrison—she was the Salvadorian maid that married Jack so that she would not be deported–was returned to prison along with Blue Dog.  Ringo was presumably hanged.  The Rangers went back to Laredo for further adventures, only to find out that while they had evaded Ringo’s efforts to kill them they were soon to be done in by their network’s own programming ax.

Not great literature but a clever (by television standards at least) play on the way that western writers used jurisdictional and inheritance issues as plot devices.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Sean Samis

    I was a big fan of The Rifleman. I recall (maybe, memory is a fuzzy thing) an episode in which the bad-guy was acquitted of a murder at the beginning, then eye-witness testimony was uncovered of the murder, but alas! double jeopardy.

    At the end, they realized the tardy witness also saw the bad guy break and enter the victim’s home and Ah Ha! Felony breaking and entering leading to Felony murder.

    I felt ready for the Bar Exam after that one.

  2. Gordon Hylton

    Like Sean, much of my early education in law and the importance of legal niceties came from television westerns.

    There is also an outlaw-will themed episode of the Rifleman, and it predates the Laredo episode by eight years. Entitled “The Outlaw’s Inheritance,” it was first shown on June 16, 1959, the 38th of the 40(!)episodes that aired during the show’s first season.

    The good folks of North Fork, New Mexico Territory, have just elected Lucas McCain (the local Cincinnatus also known as the Rifleman) to represent the town before the territorial railroad commission when a derby-hatted lawyer named Marcus Trimble shows up at the local saloon with the last will and testament of the late train robber Wade Joyner.

    Trimble had been present at the time that Joyner was fatally wounded in a Sante Fe hotel. With his dying breaths, Joyner hired Trimble to write his will which left $500 to none other than Lucas McCain of North Fork. He has also paid Trimble to find McCain and deliver his inheritance to him.

    The townspeople are immediately suspicious as to why a famous outlaw would leave money to McCain, and their confidence in him quickly erodes even though Lucas had proved himself unquestionably heroic in the previous 37 episodes. The fact that Lucas insists that he never even met Joyner is unpersuasive, particularly since his claims of innocense are undercut by Trimble’s knowledge, gained from Joyner, that Lucas has a son named Mark (which, of course, he does)

    Lucas returns to the town’s good graces a day or two later when a letter enclosed with the $500 devise reveals that years earlier Lucas had come to Joyner’s assistance when he showed up at Lucas’ ranch half-drowned by a flash flood. Until he received the letter, Lucas never knew the man’s name, and the will was a final way of saying thanks to Lucas for a single act of kindness years earlier.

    Once the contents of the letter become known in North Fork, all is forgiven. Lucas, who was removed as the town’s representative because of his suspicious connection to the notorious Joyner, is reappointed to the post and departs by stage coach for Yuma, the territorial capital, as the episode ends.

    It’s not really a very interesting episode, and certainly not nearly as clever as the Laredo outlaw will story. However, it did give Lucas McCain (portrayed by former Boston Celtic and Chicago Cub turned actor Chuck Conners) a week off from having to shoot any new gun-fighters or sociopaths with his Remington.

  3. Bruce Boyden

    It’s hard to believe Laredo only lasted 2 seasons.

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