First Impressions:  As far as regulars go, Jess is the only one who has a full time slot in this one, but it's really the guest stars' show. Jess is seriously injured and a territorial marshal and his men try desperately to save him. Interestingly, this one of the few (only?) times the story opens already in the middle of it. We join it in progress...
The Story:  Jess enters the Laramie sheriff’s office where Mort is having a bullet taken out of his arm by the doctor. Jess stops to look down at a prisoner lying wounded on a cot. Mort impatiently asks if he found out anything over at the telegraph office. Jess says the sheriff in Edgerton says the territorial Marshal left with Vern Buckner this afternoon and that they’re going the long way around so they don’t have to go through Ironwood.
The Marshal is Branch McGary who they both agree is good, but not good enough to handle the Buckner gang alone. Mort says McGary has two good deputies and besides, they can’t be sure the Buckner gang is laying in wait for them. Jess agrees, but he also knows that the wounded prisoner, DeWalt, was going to meet the Buckners. Jess notices that Stillwater Crossing is marked on a map that Mort took from Dewalt. He figures if he rides hard, he can meet up with McGary there and warn him that the Buckners may be waiting for him at the river crossing near the Buckner stronghold of Ironwood.
Jess tries to bully the information out of DeWalt, but DeWalt dies on him. Jess decides to go to the river crossing anyway, on a hunch. He sets off by himself to beat McGary to the crossing.
Meanwhile that night, we meet Branch McGary and his two deputies, Reb and Patches. Patches is an émigré from England who is devoted to Branch and Reb for helping him out and giving him a job when he desperately needed it. We find that Reb used to be on the other side of the law, for which Vern Buckner, the prisoner, taunts him.
Vern is a smarmy, cocky fellow who is quite sure that his brother, Clint is going to rescue him. He warns Patches that he might as well let him go because his brother will be coming.
Branch is a sensible, laid-back veteran lawman. Reb has let Vern get under his skin, and Branch reassures him that he trusts him as his deputy, his past notwithstanding.
At Stillwater Crossing, Vern’s brother and his gang are watching as the Marshals and the tumbleweed wagon approach from a distance. One of the men also spots Jess with binoculars approaching from the other direction. Buckner gives instructions for his men to pick off Jess quietly with a knife so as not to alert the marshals to the ambush. As they go off to take care of Jess, McGary's tumbleweed wagon approaches the crossing.
Just before the ambush at the crossing, Jess rides up, having escaped his pursuers. This “springs the trap” and the shooting begins in earnest as all parties converge on the river crossing.
Branch gets to where Jess is ensconced behind a rock. They obviously know each other and Branch is glad to see him. After awhile, the Buckners decide they’ve lost too many men already and they decide to retreat. Branch is relieved, but when he turns to Jess, his friend has been shot and tumbles down to the river's edge, a bleeding wound on his chest.
Later, Patches has tried to remove the bullet, but he’s afraid to try anymore. It’s a serious wound and a doctor will have to do it, and very soon. Jess is in a bad way. They determine that Laramie is too far away. Branch decides that the only way to give Jess a chance, is to head to the nearby town of Ironwood, the Buckner stronghold. They put Jess in the tumbleweed wagon with Vern, and Reb sits with him to watch over him.
Vern taunts Reb some more, this time for being a nursemaid. Jess wakes up and when he learns where they are headed, he is alarmed. He says they shouldn’t put themselves at risk to save him. Vern is being his loudmouthed self and tells Jess that no one thinks he’ll live till Ironwood. Finally, an exasperated Reb stuffs a bandana in Vern’s mouth to shut him up.
Arriving in Ironwood, the three carry Jess into the local Jail in full view of the town and Buckner’s men. The local justice of the peace warns McGary that Vern’s friends are here and he doesn’t want trouble for the town. McGary refuses to budge and overrides the man’s protestations and he and his men take over the jail.
Meanwhile Cliff Buckner is watching, proud that they “did some damage”. Buckner’s men boast that they can take the jail easily. Buckner has another idea, however. He says that the Marshal will open up the doors and let his brother walk right out.
In the jail, Vern is in a cell, and Patches is trying to make Jess comfortable on a cot. Jess wakes up and calls McGary over. Jess is very weak and can barely talk. Branch tells him Reb is bringing the doctor. Jess says Branch is a fool, he never should have come to Ironwood. Branch tells him saving him is more important than one prisoner. Jess accuses him of getting old, but Branch says he’s getting tired. He’s tired of “trying to keep a house clean that everyone is trying to make dirty”. Jess insists he should have kept going. Branch says it’s worth more to him to save a man’s life than to take one to an execution.
A group of townspeople come to the door. McGary shoos them outside where they protest McGary’s highhanded way of taking over and putting their town in danger by bringing Vern there. McGary chastises them for letting the Buckner’s walk all over them. He urges them to stand up and “kill the snake by cutting off its head”. The town is scared and they beg McGary to leave.
Reb comes up and says the doctor is “gone” and there’s no sign of him. He suspects he’s with Clint Buckner, possibly being held by him. Meanwhile, Jess is in the jail, in pain and getting worse.
In their stronghold at the jail, Vern is spouting off, Patches is taking care of Jess and Clint Buckner comes to talk to McGary. Clint offers to swap the doctor for his brother, Vern. He gives McGary until 5 o’clock. It’s 4:15.
Inside, Reb has gone into the cell and started trying to beat up Vern out of sheer frustration. Branch breaks it up and lectures Reb about manhandling the prisoners. Reb is frustrated. He wants to act, not wait around and not make deals. He wants to use Vern to force Clint to hand over the doctor instead of waiting. They argue about their philosophical differences. Reb says “what are we supposed to do? Just wait and let him die?” McGary won’t buy Vern with Jess’ life.
Reb is angry. He doesn’t see how he’s expected to fight with his hands tied. He turns over his badge and storms out. Branch goes outside to try to stop him. Their confrontation is witnessed by Buckner.
At the livery, Reb is saddling up to leave town when one of Buckner’s men takes him to see Clint at gunpoint. Reb tells Clint he quit his job. Clint admires Reb’s skills, he has a reputation. Clint offers Reb a job. Reb refuses. Clint doesn’t take no for an answer.
Meanwhile back at the jail, an obviously dying Jess calls Mac over. He struggles to speak, telling McGary to not let Vern go. He’s a goner anyway and he doesn’t want McGary to “…make this all for nothing. I haven’t got a chance now” McGary protests, but Jess has passed out and can’t hear him.
The townspeople come back and tell McGary that they can’t find the doctor. McGary is resigned to the upcoming confrontation. He thanks the people for trying. The townsfolk are contrite. McGary sends them away and prepares for the decision he must make. Time is short.
Reb is thinking about throwing in with Buckner. Buckner tells him that he has the doc and plans to hand him over when Vern is released, but after that, he has further plans. The idea that Buckner intends to kill Branch and Patches anyway turns the tide for Reb. Reb sees one of the men go upstairs and figures that’s where they’re keeping the doc. Feigning illness, Reb goes outside, overpowers one of Buckner’s men and then heads up the outside stairs to get the doc. Reb comes through after all.
The doc is being held in a room above the saloon and is being guarded by one of Buckner’s men. Reb breaks in just as Clint is out on the street calling McGary outside.
McGary tells Patches to bring Vern out, but just then Reb shouts from the window that he has the doc. Buckner’s man jumps Reb from behind and they start fighting in the hotel room. Buckner’s men start to open fire when the townspeople come up and arrest Buckner and his men.
With Buckner taken care of, and Reb beating the stuffing out of his man, the doc escapes and Reb shouts for him to get over the jail quick. Branch and Reb put aside their differences and Reb is back in the fold as Branch tosses him his badge.
At the Sherman ranch, Mike spots the tumbleweed wagon rolling up to the house. Slim and Daisy come outside and meet Branch McGary who says he has a dangerous criminal that he’s going to have to leave with them. Slim says “Now wait a minute”, until they see Jess being helped out of the back of the wagon. Stunned, Slim, Daisy and Mike can’t say anything. Then Jess says, “What’s the matter? Aren’t you glad to see me?” They all run out to welcome him home.
Annie's Favorite Moments:   Jess is dying. He knows it, and Branch knows it. The end is near and it doesn't look like Jess is going to last long enough for help to come. Of course it's plot device, pure and simple, to use as a premise the fact that if they can just get the doctor to him, he'll survive. Well, be that as it may, we're about to lose Jess and his parting words are to try to convince Branch to "not make it for nothin'. " Gets me every time.
I really like David McLean as Branch McGary, even more than as Cully Brown. He is a decent man with a difficult, thankless job and he has to make an impossible decision. He's got just the right touch of world-weariness. I like Reb and Patches too, and I think this would have been a very good show on it's own.
Jenny's Favorite Moments:  My favorite moment has to be the moment that Branch realizes Jess has been hit.   My heart flip-flopped the first time I saw Jess fall.   I liked the whole episode, but my favorite non-Jess moment is the way Reb came through in the end.   Great chemistry and comraderie between Branch and Reb.   This did seem like a pilot.   I certainly would've given it a try based on this episode.
Notes of Interest:I don't have any more information than the next person, but I personally believe that this episode was intended to be a pilot for a new series starring David McLean as Branch McGary. An unusual amount of time was spent developing the three characters of Branch, Reb and Patch, and Jess was a secondary presence.
The Owie Factor:   Jess gets a huge life-threatening owie in this one. Shot in the chest early on and pretty much out of it for the rest of the episode.