No one shot J.R. Ewing. He died of a heart attack at 67, alone in a squalid rooming house in Houston (not Dallas) seven years ago. This James Ronald Ewing was a merchant sea captain, not a fictitious oil baron, and though he was not so rich or powerful as the television character whose name he happened to share, in death he left the sort of mystery of which prime-time drama is made.

In September 1980 Houston attorney Ed Gillett, then 29, was appointed administrator of Ewing's estate. He and his wife, Melody, also a lawyer, went up to the dead seaman's room, trying to find "enough money somewhere to cover a pauper's funeral, maybe $300 or $400." What they found, amid the empty food cans and dirty clothing, were several brown paper bags stuffed with cash, payroll checks and securities totaling over $150,000.

At that point the Gilletts set about finding an heir. Ewing had named a girlfriend in Singapore the beneficiary of his $50,000 retirement fund. With the court's permission, they traveled to the Far East to see her. She told them Ewing had been born in Nova Scotia. Financed by interest accruing to the estate, they followed lead after lead, year after year, to no avail. They could have simply placed a legal notice in the newspapers inviting heirs to come forward and then let the legacy go to the state of Texas, but the Gilletts kept searching because they believed it was their Christian duty. "Attorneys from Texas looking for the heirs of J.R. Ewing: People thought it was all a big joke," says Ed. This fall they went to Nova Scotia where, after reading of their quest, one Hilda Leblanc came forth, identifying J.R. Ewing as a second cousin who had moved to Boston as a boy. There he had a wife, Harriet, and a son, Charles, and one day in 1955 he went to sea and was never heard from again. Harriet, who had always hoped he'd return, died last February. But where was Charles?

The Boston Globe published a story on the Ewing mystery. The next day Charles Ewing, 51, an East Boston housepainter, claimed the estate, which had grown to $170,000. "Jeez," he told Ed after hearing about the seven-year search, "I'm the easiest guy in the world to find.... Ask anybody."