The lines in bold print are dialog from the episode, The General Must Die, Laramie, Season 1, written by the incomparable John Champion.  Mr. Champion was the producer of Laramie, and he penned 33 episodes as well, including some of the best loved, best remembered stories of the series.

Beta by Viking, with thanks for her kind suggestions and generous support!

 

Battle Plans

By Jan G.

 

The thought of Jess lyin’ dead at the bottom of the canyon on the old Laramie road made me want to cry ever’ bit as much as Andy.  And Jess had been our best chance to survive this day, this madman Colonel Branton.  My thoughts raced and worried to find a solution to keep Andy, Jonesy and maybe even myself, safe.  But always at the back of my mind: too late. . .too late. . .too late to save Jess.

And betrayed by Whit Malone: I thought I knew you, Whit, fought beside you, saved your life and you saved mine.  We leaned on each other and we celebrated when you joined Branton’s staff.  What happened to you?  What made you take up such a twisted view of the disaster at Hackettstown, that cost the lives of two hundred soldiers?  That blood bath should have turned you against Branton.  Yet you continue to believe in him, to follow him.  Even after his court martial, you held tight to him.  He’s poisoned you with his bitterness, his vindictiveness, and his treason.  Kill General Sherman? Why, Whit?  How do I get through to you?

Time seemed to be runnin’ strange today; hours crawled along, and then minutes flew by.  Three hours had passed since Whit came back from chasin’ Jess and told us he was at the bottom of that canyon.  It had been the longest three hours of my life.  Andy would never get over losin’ his friend, and neither would I.  But I still had to come up with some way to keep the rest of us alive.

I swear I’ll get them back for what they did to you, Jess.

# # # #

I read the passages from the Battles of the Civil War book about Colonel Branton and how he disobeyed Sherman’s orders at Hackettstown.  Some I had read over and over to let the words sink in, not just dance in front of my eyes.  Maybe some of the strategies from those Civil War battles would work for me, show me how to rescue us all. 

I checked out the window, checked the time, six whole minutes since I last looked; sat back down, and tried to concentrate, to find a way out.

Somethin’ dinged against the side of the house and I risked a quick look.  Nothin’ there.  Stop it, Sherman, wishful thinkin’ ain’t gonna change any of this. 

Read, dadgum it! 

Another noise, but louder this time.  I knew I wasn’t imaginin’ things!  And then I saw him. JESS!  He was hiding in the outdoor shower.

Any other time that would be funny, given that my ranch hand isn’t overly fond of gettin’ wet.

I should have known that cowboy was too ornery to get himself killed!  A weight lifted off my shoulders and breathin’ came easier.  Jess was alive!

He motioned towards the barn and I nodded to let him know I’d be there. 

We had at least a fightin’ chance now, to get out of this mess with our hides intact, and maybe save General Sherman, too.   I wanted to yell, to shout, to let Jonesy and Andy know Jess was outside, that he wasn’t lyin’ dead at the bottom of the ravine.  I knew I had a big grin on my face, and these yahoos were gonna wonder why.

I had to get myself under control, had to get out to Jess.

 

# # # #

 “I think I will take a cracker, Jonesy. Oh, and, Jonesy, tell Andy to stop wastin’ his tears on Jess.  We’ve got enough to worry about without that.”

I winked at Jonesy, hoping he would take my meaning that Jess was alive, that he was outside. My old friend’s eyes lit up, and I knew he’d understood.

I threw a glance at the man they called Crowley, and started for the front door, cracker in hand. He let me go without any argument.

I passed Whit and Branton in the yard and told them I was getting the horses ready for the stage.

Branton had Yates on guard, and I stopped in front of him, forcing the man to swing around with his back to the house and barn.  I held his attention while Jess hightailed it to the barn and slipped inside.

I saw blood on Jess’s jacket.  Dammit, he had been wounded when Whit went after him!  But how bad?

# # # #

I caught up horses from the front pasture and led them into the small corral beside the barn.

I dipped grain into a bucket to fill the trough so the horses could get at the feed.  As I got close to the barn, I softly called, “Jess?” and his gravelly voice replied, “Yeah, here!”

“Are you hurt?”

I’ll make it,” came the quick response, which knowing Jess, means “It hurts like blazes, but I’ll never admit it.”

“Who are they?”

I filled him in, including what their plans were for General Sherman… and, more’n likely, the rest of us. 

Jess offered to hide beside the road and stop the stage, but I was afraid Branton’s guards in the hills above the ranch would finish him off if they spotted him.

We both knew we had to find some way to alert the guards riding on the coaches, but short of a grass fire, I couldn’t come up with anything useful.  Jess finally said we needed some kind of signal.  That gave me the idea to paint a warning with whitewash on the side of the barn.  Jess, his voice excited, asked me to get him a pail of water.  The powdered whitewash was inside the barn! 

I briefly reflected on the fact that I was thinking like Jess, which in itself was scary to contemplate. Well, hopefully, between the two of us we could figure a way to put a stop to Colonel Branton. 

Sometimes it’s like the two us do think as one, and it’s stood us in good stead before.  Don’t matter if it was solving ranch problems or corralling an ornery old steer. Or an ornery old outlaw for that matter. 

But we also needed a weapon, some means of fighting back.  I asked Jess if he had his gun, and when he answered that he did, I told him to leave it in the barn.  That way, either one of us could try for it.

I dipped a bucket of water and poured part of it in the trough with the horses’ feed.

I hefted the pail and entered the barn.  As I set the water down, Jess and I had a moment to glance at each another.  Those few seconds face to face were a whole lot more satisfyin’ than talkin’ through that curtain over the barn window!

Jess whispered that he would leave the gun on the shelf by the side door and I agreed.

 I walked back out to the corral and leaned on the top rail.  I offered a couple of suggestions for the warning, but Jess’s idea to use the word ‘ambush’ was better.

 “Hey!  Are you talking to somebody?”  Yates shouted from just behind me.

“Yeah, the horses.”

I quickly walked away to close the lid on the feed bin, but Yates stepped into the barn anyway.  Thank goodness Jess had already ducked outside.

That was close!  And too soon.  Jess and I didn’t get a chance to plan how to use that gun of his, and I hadn’t told him how Whit and Branton were planning to murder all of us after the first stage comes through with the Secret Service agents.

Hell, I hadn’t even told him about the early stage comin’ in!

# # # #

Yates herded me into the house and I went back to reading.  I hate waiting!  But I needed to give Jess time to paint the warning sign.  I tried to act as if nothing had changed since I went to get the horses ready. 

I almost wore a path from the kitchen door to the window!  The ticking of that clock got louder every minute.  Been what, twenty-five, thirty minutes?

I sat back down and pretended to read, but Branton walked up and took the book out of my hands.

He read the title, Battles of the Civil War, and then tossed the book back to me.

Colonel Branton carried himself as an officer long accustomed to command, and of being obeyed without question.  He was the very picture of a military leader: his manner concise and controlled, his speech exact and his clothes impeccable.

His hooded, piercing eyes and thin lips set in a tight line all contributed to the impression of a man balanced on a razor’s edge.

Branton was staring a hole through me as he pointed to the book I held, “Well, you won’t learn the truth in there!”

You want to tell it to me?”

I watched Branton’s face take on a faraway look as he relived his actions at Hackettstown. I could well imagine the glory he saw himself covered with had his ambitions succeeded.

As he pulled himself back to the present, Branton snorted disdainfully, and turned away. It was obvious he was not about to argue military tactics with a rancher whose rank in the war was a mere 2nd lieutenant.

I came up off the stool I had been sitting on and followed him out of the kitchen.

# # # #

I started when I saw Whit open the front door.

“Collins is makin’ a signal from the hill.  Somethin’ about the barn.”

Damn!  Jess hadn’t had enough time!

Colonel Branton picked up his hat and headed outside with Whit.  Yates crowded close behind them, and I swung out the door too, with Andy, Jonesy and Crowley hard on my heels.

Whit Malone disappeared around the corner of the barn and I yelled,

“Run, Jess! Run!”

I made tracks myself, scared of what might happen when Whit caught sight of Jess.

I found Whit Malone sizing Jess up with his eyes, his gun firmly pointed at my wounded friend.  “Hold it!”  He shook his head slightly.  “Right there!

“You’re sure hard to kill, ain’t ya?”  Whit took his finger off the trigger, lifted the barrel of his pistol and then aimed at Jess again.

Branton was instructing his other men:  “Lieutenant Yates, check the perimeter.  Make sure there is no one else around.

“Sergeant Crowley, keep an eye on the prisoners.”

Crowley leveled his rifle at my middle, as he motioned for me to raise my hands and step back with Andy and Jonesy.

Yates had taken off as soon as Branton issued his command and now he headed around the outside of the barn corral, still at a lope.  He never slowed down as he closed in, and then the butt of his Winchester connected with my belly.

“Talkin’ to the horses, huh?” 

He drew back to swing at me again but Branton snapped, “Lieutenant! That will do!”

I was down on all fours gasping for breath when Branton barked, “Malone!  Take that Harper behind the barn and finish what you failed to accomplish this morning!  Be quick about it!  The first coach will be here shortly and I don’t want the sound of shots to scare them off!”

 “Yes, sir!”  

 “Colonel Branton!  If you hurt…Jess you get no more cooperation…from me.  And don’t forget…you still need me --us-- to make everything…look normal, so the Secret . . .Service agents on that coach don’t get suspicious.”  

I struggled to my feet, one arm wrapped across my stomach.

“I mean it, Branton!”

I was frantic to stop Whit before he could carry out Branton’s orders.

Whit was slowly pushing Jess ahead of him toward the corral and the back of the barn. 

“Stop!  You leave him alone, Whit, or you’ll get nothing from me!”

Branton lifted his hand in a wave toward Jess and Whit.  To emphasize his command over his men and the situation, he calmly stated, “Mr. Sherman, you are only delaying the inevitable.”

“That may be, Colonel, but if Jess is dead, I promise you get no help from me!”

“Mr. Sherman, are you forgetting your brother and the old man?  They will still ensure your obedience.”

“Maybe, Branton, but as you said, I am going to prolong the inevitable.  We will all come to an end together.”

“Very well, Sherman!”

Colonel Branton’s eyes glittered as they bore into mine.

He was not used to anyone questioning his authority and I saw a threat from him as payment for my “insubordination”.  But he knew, and I knew, he still needed me to make sure General Sherman’s coach did not turn back.

“Crowley! Take these two back into the house.  Lieutenant Yates, let Collins know what has happened and then relieve Captain Malone.”

The orders came rapid fire from a man accustomed to being obeyed.

“Captain, get Sherman and Harper started whitewashing over that sign.  When Lieutenant Yates returns, leave him to guard them and you come confer with me.” 

Branton turned on his heel and marched briskly toward the house.

“Yes, Colonel.” Malone motioned with his pistol for me to join Jess. 

“Slim, you and Harper get over here!  Get that covered up in a hurry!”

I knew it was probably futile, but during the war, we had been friends.

“Whit, you know this is all wrong.  Branton’s crazy!  Why risk everything for him?  You’re not a cold-blooded killer!  I know you bettern’ that!”

“It’s too late, Slim.  You should’ve gone to Montana.  Go ahead and get started.  Yates is already wantin’ to get back at ya—and your friend here ain’t lookin’ so good.”

I glanced over to see Jess leaning against the barn, his right hand clutching his left forearm.  Blood stained his jacket and dripped from his fingers.

“Jess?”  

He nodded to let me know he was still good to back me.

I picked up the broom and bucket Jess had used to write our warning for General Sherman.

“Jess, get some water.  We’ll need it to make up more whitewash.”

He pushed away from the barn, lifted an empty pail and headed toward the pump.  For Jess not to say anything told me louder than words just how bad he was hurtin’.

Whit and I were alone, and I decided to try one more time:

“Whit!  This is not a military maneuver! You are not soldiers following orders.  The war is over!   This is murder, pure and simple.  Andy and Jonesy shouldn’t be a part of this.  You’re talkin’ wholesale slaughter a repeat of what Branton did at Hackettstown.”

I watched as Jess slowly made his way back to us and set the pail of water down.  He was lookin’ a little ragged around the edges.

“Whit, you were gonna shoot Jess down like an animal on Branton’s say-so!”

Malone shrugged, “Sorry, Harper, you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Was there no way to reach the man?

“Maybe I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time when that Rebel captain was gettin’ ready to run you through, Whit.”   My voice was calm, but bitter and edged in steel.

That rattled him. His eyes flickered over to me and then back to Jess.  The expression on his face changed and the gun he held was not nearly as steady as it had been. 

I had scored a hit.  Maybe I could press my advantage to keep him from blindly following Branton.

Just as I thought I was getting through to my old buddy, Yates came storming from the front pasture to relieve Malone and take up his guard over Jess and me.  I held Whit’s gaze as long as I could, but he shrugged a shoulder and turned away. 

He saluted Yates with a touch of his gun to the brim of his hat, holstered his six-shooter and headed inside.

# # # #

“Both of you men get busy,” Yates grunted. “I’m just itching to settle with you, Sherman.  I haven’t forgotten your little trick with the horses and it won’t take much for me to take it out of your hide, or your friend’s maybe.”

He scowled at both of us and raked his Winchester between Jess’ shoulder blades to shove him toward the barn.  I was ready to take it up with him, but Jess caught my arm and pulled me toward the writing to be scrubbed over.

Yates sauntered over to the corral fence, hopped it and leaned against the top rail with the rifle pointed in our direction.  He was alert, moving his fingers back and forth over the trigger guard.  The man was just aching for one of us to give him an excuse to shoot.

“Jess, you pour the water in and I’ll stir it up.  Scoop some whitewash into the pail and that’s all you’ll have to do.”

Then more quietly, “I know that shoulder must be hurtin’, so just listen.”

Jess had crouched down to add the whitewash and water, and again he just nodded, so I kept talkin’, and tried to remember to keep my voice low so Yates wouldn’t hear.

“Whit Malone is an old army sidekick of mine.  He came in on the stage yesterday like he’d come to visit.  Then Colonel Branton and two other men showed up early this mornin’.  They pulled guns and have kept us prisoner ever since.

“Whit figured out who you were and came after ya.  Andy was grievin’ hard thinkin’ you were dead, and I owe Branton and his bunch somethin’ for that, too.

“Jess, that had to be the longest three hours I ever lived through!  When Whit said he left you dead.   I…I….”   My voice trailed off.  The danged  whitewash was making my eyes sting.                           

Jess glanced up at me, and with that lop-sided grin, said, “Me too, Pard!

“What can we do, Slim?  I left my iron in the barn, but we’ll have to get to it, and these men are scattered over the ranch, not in one place where we can attack ‘em all at once.”

Jess talked and I smeared whitewash over the letters he had just painted on the side of the barn.

“Jess, General Sherman had Branton court martialed and this is his idea of revenge.  Sherman’s special stage run is due here at 4 o’clock.” 

I kept my back to Yates and my voice low, but he must have heard somethin’, because he yelled:  “Sherman!  Shut up and get done!”

“All right, I’m workin’ as fast as I can!  Jess, add some more water and whitewash.”

Jess, still crouched down by the bucket, pointed out that we needed more water and offered to fetch it.

 I knew Jess was thinkin’ that on his way to the pump, he’d collect his gun from the barn.

“NO!” Yates shouted, “You stay put!”  He began to wave his rifle around.

“I know you two are up to something.  So, you!  Yeah, you, Harper, just raise your hands and walk, real slow, out to the middle of the corral.”

Slowly, Jess stood and lifted his right hand above his head.  But he hadn’t yet taken a step toward the center of the corral.  Nor had he turned around to face Yates.

“I cain’t lift but the one. You gonna shoot me for that?”

 “Jess, hush!  I’ll keep his attention.  You get to your iron and get the drop on him.”

Jess whispered, “Slim, let me keep mouthin’ off, and you go for the gun.”

Yates vaulted over the fence and came across the corral, rifle braced in both hands, and his face furious.

“No, Jess!” I hissed. “We both know you’re better with a gun, and besides, you know exactly where to find it!  Pard, I know you’re not feelin’ the best, but you always come through when you have to.”

 “All right, Slim.  We’ll play it your way.  I’ll keep my eye on you and try not to get either one of us killed.  Just nod when you’re ready!”

 

“Harper, I said walk to the middle of the corral. And I mean NOW!”  Yates was in a rare temper. 

Even so, I meant to throw myself, and the broom, at him as soon as he got close enough.  But he stopped and lined his Winchester up on Jess.  I hadn’t had a chance to get close to him, and he forced Jess out to stand between us in the center of the corral.

“Yates, leave ‘im alone.  I’m the one who was talkin’!”

“That’s it, Sherman! I’ve already told you once to shut up.  Leave the broom and bucket and head to the house.  You’ve got it good enough.”

He had us both covered, There was no opportunity to make a break for the barn to get Jess’s gun.  Yates was so mad he’d be happy to shoot either one or both of us.  

“You get moving too, Harper, but slow, now.  Slow!  Just give me an excuse!”

Yates motioned with his rifle for us to move back to the house.

# # # #

I step inside and let Jess follow.  He heads for the rocking chair and Jonesy starts fussing with his shoulder.

Branton snaps, “Get it all painted out?”

“Yeah.”

I glance toward the clock on the kitchen shelf.  The sound of that clock fills the house.  Twenty after three.

 

 

 



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