It Came Upon The Midnight Clear (by Mustang Sallie)

Summary: The US Army, fighting losing battles in border towns between Canada and the states needs a spy. He could walk away or lose his best friend, his reputation or his life.  I always wondered what prompted Jess to become a spy and how Slim felt when he watched his friend ride away towards danger. This is my take on the show “The Midnight Rebellion” Season 1,episode 29. Although some of this story follows canon, I have added some fictional elements such as the weather. In my  version, the story takes place in early fall and ends on a mild Christmas night and the new sheriff Mort Cory makes his appearance after Marshal Richardson has “deceased.” I do not own the copyright of Laramie or its characters. I just like to play and take everyone in another direction.

Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rating: K
Word Count:  10,740


Chapter 1

The voices in his head were getting louder, insisting he make a decision NOW. They were tumbling around in his head louder than ever before. He had to make a decision. He could walk away and live his life or gallop into the fray. Fear gripped him. He could lose everything – his best friend, his new family, his reputation or his life. As he stalked to the barn, he could feel Slim’s eyes boring into his back. He’d already told him, in no uncertain terms, to “leave it” but he knew that Slim would hound him until he got an answer. The problem was, he wasn’t sure how to tell him that he was riding out and warn him to stay home ‘cause this time there was no turning back. This time there would be no one waiting up for the former gunslinger now rancher, best friend and spy. In order for his plan to work, he had decided to grumble and complain a bit more than usual. He knew that eventually his antics would raise the ire of his boss, now friend, but there was no hope for it. The scheme was already in motion and he had little time to explain his actions. Heck, he couldn’t explain what was going on anyway. The confrontation was coming and he could do little to stop it.

“Slim, why is Jess acting so strange?” Andy asked his older brother that night after supper.

“You mean more ornery than usual?” Jonesy interrupted. The oldest friend, acting Pa of the Sherman boys and foreman of their ranch, had noticed the behavior too. He had baked up a storm that night but all Jess did was answer questions with grunts and push his food around his plate.

“I don’t know Andy,” Slim replied as he looked at Jess’ retreating back. He was headed to the barn again to have a one-sided conversation with his horse. “Something is bothering him, that’s for sure. He’s been like this since returning from the fort.”

Andy dried the last dish and handed it off to Jonesy. “I hope he doesn’t go away. I’d miss him awful.“

Slim sighed deeply. Not bothering to correct his brother’s grammar, he walked over to the pegs by the door. He shrugged on his winter jacket, slammed on his hat and after grabbing Jess’ jacket turned towards Andy. “Best I go try and talk to him again. Don’t fret, Andy. I’m sure it’s nothing.“

Little did he know, but “it” would prove to be more than nothing, as Slim was soon to find out and the “something“ would threaten the fragility of their growing bond and the loyalty of one Slim Sherman.

Chapter 2

Slim could hear the warm gravely voice rise and lower in distress long before he saw his best friend. He watched him quietly as Jess rubbed down his horse. Traveler, his faithful steed, said nothing as usual. His master was in trouble and he could sense a trip was coming.

Not wanting to startle his best friend, Slim called out “so, do I need a pitchfork or a shot gun?”

“What are you jabbering about?” Jess asked warily.

“I asked if I should get a pitchfork or my shot gun. I figure we’re headed out soon and I’d best be prepared.“

“You ain’t gonna go with me! Just leave it! I’m warning ya!”

Slim just shook his head. Although the warning was said in anger, there was no real heat in Jess’ words. He sat down on the nearest bale of hay. “Here,” he threw the jacket to Jess, “I know you still aren’t used to our winter weather, but you can’t be too careful. It could be cold in the morning and then heat up later on or get real cold at night. A snowstorm could come on real sudden. Best be prepared.”  ‘This year, The Farmer’s Almanac proclaimed that it would be a mild winter.’ he thought. ‘Which meant hardly any snow. Andy would be disappointed. He loved to make snow forts.’

Jess shook his head. There was no use for it. He had to set Slim straight. Maybe he could help him after all. “Do you recollect a guy by the name of Owen Cantrell?”

Slim studied the barn floor then raised his head. “Yeah, wasn’t he a former Confederate soldier who was court marshaled for killing almost a whole town in Kansas during the war?”

“Well, he was put in the brig alright but then he escaped. He joined up with the former governor of Saskatchewan in Canada a fellow named Corteen. Seems the two of them have been pretty busy starting raids up and down the border.”

“But Jess, the war’s been over for a long time now!“ Slim didn’t quite understand.

“Both men can’t get the war out of their system. They like killing too much.” Jess growled. ‘It was one thing to kill a man in self-defense but quite another to kill innocent men, women and children’ he thought. He had escaped a fate like it at the hands of the Banisters and knew the despair and sadness that the families were suffering. He hoped he would never meet a survivor, as he would have no words of comfort for them. He could only hope that after it was all over, that he wouldn’t suffer nightmares.

“What has that got to do with Laramie and you?”

Jess took a deep breath. ‘Here we go’ he thought. “Remember when I went to the fort a couple of weeks ago?”

“So?”

“As I was getting ready to leave, one of the corporals came up and told me that General Thompson wanted to see me. When I got to his office, he had me close his door.”

Slim stared at him. “Sounds serious,“ he murmured.

“He told me that the Border Wars were worse than before. It seems that both Cantrell and Corteen have started what the army is calling The Canadian Border Dispute. They are raiding towns up and down the border between the states and Canada. Corteen is concentrating on the border between Montana territories and Canada. He fancies himself the new governor and has men going out every day recruiting  gunslingers, vigilantes, outlaws, anyone without a conscience. His new headquarters is a town called Waterton in Canada. The US Government and Canada have a “ hands off policy” while they try and solve the conflict. Cantrell robs the citizens of the  towns to pay for the new hit and run soldiers. They’re also after the army, stealing supplies. Horses have been stolen and a patrol was ambushed and all the ammunition  stolen. All the  towns are considered neutral and the army, well, the army can’t keep up and they need a spy.”

“They want you, right!” Slim asked quietly.

Jess nodded miserably. “They want me to become part of the raiding party but to do that, I have to commit a crime, and the only three people who will know the truth are Marshal Richardson, you and the General.”

The two friends were quiet after that. Jess could hardly breathe, fearful of what Slim was thinking. Slim was trying to figure out why Jess had to be a part of this and how he could help him.

“Just tell me why you?” Slim asked finally.

“I can track, I’m good with horses, and I’m an ex-gunslinger.”

Slim rose suddenly and walked to Jess’ side. “What else aren’t you telling me?” he asked quietly.

“The general wanted me ‘cause he thought I  had no one who would miss me if I died. I told him about you and Andy and Jonesy. He said you weren’t blood kin. I tried arguing the point but he was adamant. He wouldn’t listen. He said I was perfect. I knew Montana like I knew Laramie.  I have no choice.“ Slim slipped a hand around his Pard’s shoulders.

“You could say ‘no.’

“Would you?”

“What type of crime would you have to commit?“ Slim’s thoughts went into another direction.

“Something I  couldn’t walk away from, like kill the marshal.“

Slim froze. “Oh, no Jess. Not that!  He’s a Government Marshal. If you were caught, you’d hang. Even if afterwards, you were cleared, you couldn’t come back to Laramie!”

Jess nodded. He knew the risks all to well. He had decided that he would rather die by one of the army’s bullets than a hangman’s noose. He glanced at Slim. His friend and brother was so quiet.

“What do you want me to do?” he asked finally.

“The marshal will get word to me when the recruiter is in town. Then I’ll start a brawl in Stockmen’s Palace. I’ll have to fight you and shoot the  Marshal with a blank cartridge. He’ll have a sack of chicken blood in his shirt. When I make my escape, you’ll have to say that I killed the Marshal and then have him hide out at the ranch. Then, no matter what’s being said, you’ll have to stand by and say nothing.” He paused and then said, in a strangled voice, “Slim, I won’t be coming back. If I’m not killed in a raid or by a posse, I will probably hide out in California or even Canada.”

Slim choked back tears and sank onto a bale of hay, his head in his hands in despair.

Chapter 3

The next morning, when Jess finally woke up, he discovered that Slim was gone. He figured that his Pard had some chore to do which didn’t involve him. He also knew that Slim thought better in the saddle and would likely be trying to make sense of what he had to do. He was sitting on the porch later that day when Slim showed up. “Could you help me in the barn?”  Slim asked Jess.

The two friends made their way into the dark, cold space. As soon as they entered, Slim swung the door closed. “Pard, I want you to know what I did. I went to the bank this morning. I withdrew some of the money from the ranch account. Then I went to Benson’s General Store and bought some extra blankets, a new slicker for you cause your old one has that huge hole in it and extra vittles. I then put the leftover money into your account. I  rode out to the line cabin we always use. I left the blankets and other things there. This way, when you ride out, you’ll be prepared. I won’t be on a posse to bring you in and I know that I’ll be watched so I can’t help you, but I wanted to do something for you.”

“You didn’t have to..” his voice froze on his lips.

“I did,” Slim spoke. “Jess,” he put a hand on his shoulder, anchoring them in the small space of Traveler’s stall. “I want you to know, that all my life I was searching for someone like you. Someone who would be my friend. Someone who would have my back no matter what. He would be someone who I could talk to, share secrets and fears and dreams with, someone like you. There will never be someone like you in my life, and I just want you to know that no matter what happens in Canada, you will still be my friend. Oh, I know that it hasn’t always been easy living with me. So staid in my ways of no middle ground but I have learned so much from you and I owe my relationship with Andy to you. I know in the future that I will go along and suddenly want to share a joke or a story or concern with you and I’ll turn to talk with you and you won’t be there to listen and that will hurt. I just want to thank you for being the best friend I’ll ever have.”

Jess was too stunned to speak. He almost regretted the task in front of him. To have a friend like Slim was a gift he would never have again. Too choked up to speak, he pulled Slim into a  brotherly embrace and thanked God for giving him the great gift of friendship.

Two days later, their life turned upside down.  Andy’s friend Josh had invited him to his home to build a fort and as he rode away, Jess couldn’t help but sigh. He would miss the young boy. They had a friendship different from his and Slim’s. Somehow, Andy had formed a connection with him that could not be denied.  It was almost like having a little brother again.  He knew his leaving would hurt his young friend but he knew that Slim and Jonesy would protect him and guide him. It would have been a pleasure to see him grow up.  As the rest of the family  were about to pull out for a supply run, the stage rumbled into the yard. Slim and Jess saw to the horses while Mose gossiped. “Oh,” he said suddenly, “that Marshal asked me to give you this.” He handed a note to Jess.

Jess tucked the note in his pocket.  Slim and Jess had elected to ride along as they usually had a beer in the saloon before heading home.  “So what was in the letter? “Slim asked Jess as they walked towards Stockmen’s. Jess smiled grimly. “My last drink in Laramie,” was all he said.

Slim gasped and turned paler than usual. “Jess, I” he stopped. ‘There was nothing else he could say.’ He thought.

“Say, Slim!” Slim turned towards the sound, feeling his legs almost give out. “Can I see you for a minute?” John Daigle, Laramie’s  editor of “The Chronicle” called to the young rancher. “I need you to read something!”

Slim looked at Jess’ back for a minute, wishing he could turn back time. He slowly walked into the newspaper office. He seldom had cause to visit the printer. ‘At least Mr. Daigle was an honest editor,’ Slim thought. ‘The last one extended the truth so far that the original story never made it onto the page.’

Mr. Daigle proceeded to thrust the newspaper into Slim’s hands. “Read this!” he exclaimed. Slim read the story about Corteen and Cantrell and a man named Jamieson. ‘Oh Jess,’ he shuddered silently. ‘what are you getting yourself into now?’

“Why am I reading this?” he asked John Daigle.  “What has this to do with Laramie? “

“Because that man,” John Daigle exclaimed, “is in Laramie right now! I saw him at Stockmen’s just an hour ago!”

Slim looked at the picture in the paper. ‘So you’re the fellow who’s going to take my friend away!’ he dipped his head, as though in thought. Suddenly, the print shop door opened. “You gotta come quick, Slim! Jess is in trouble at the saloon!”

Slim thrust the paper at John Daigle, grabbed his hat and ran after the man. He got there just as Jess was spouting on about the ranch being dull and quiet. He knew Jess wasn’t drunk but he sure was putting up a good show of it. He cringed as Jess aimed his gun at the ceiling and fired off a shot, remarking that since the drinks were watered down, the bartender could get water for free now. Slim remembered that Jess said the pushing match, to come any minute now, had to look real, so he would pull his punch and that he would try not to hit him too hard. ‘It was going to hurt,’ he thought. Jess could wallop him good when he got going’ he thought as he walked slowly towards Jess. He remembered the Carlin forced punch that Jess had delivered that fateful day. He had to play his part now, despite his feelings of dread.

“Come on, Jess,” he said placating his friend, “let’s go home.” His hand was on Jess’ arm and so when Jess shrugged it off, Slim was surprised. Suddenly, Jess swung around and caught Slim unawares. He shoved him away and then hit him square in the jaw. Slim lost his balance and fell backwards, hitting his head. As he slipped into unconsciousness, he heard the shots and the stunned silence.

He lifted his head in confusion and heard one of the men yell, “go form a posse! Jess Harper just killed the Marshal!” He watched the men run out of the bar. Jonesy was by his side, wiping off the blood that trickled down his face.

“Jonesy, I have to get the Marshal to the undertaker. Why don’t you find us a blanket or something to wrap him up.”

“You’re not going after Jess?” Jonesy asked in surprise.

Slim shook his head slowly. Already, the wound was causing a headache and the room was swaying. “Why?” he demanded. “So I can see him hang?”

Jonesy left, shaking his head. He knew in that instant, that the brotherly bond the two young men had formed, had just been split in two. When he returned, Slim had found a blanket and wrapped the Marshal up. He and another man named Clem carried the body to the undertaker as Jonesy just shook his head and wondered how in earth they were going to tell Andy.

Chapter 4

Slim always thought that telling Andy that his beloved hero and friend had killed Marshal Richardson was the hardest thing he had ever done. Andy, in denial, had slammed his bedroom door in his face and for several days afterwards refused to speak to his big brother. He would talk to Jonesy, demanding to know why Slim didn’t stop Jess or why he wouldn’t try and find him, but like Slim, Jonesy had no answers.  Slim had promised Jess that he wouldn’t be part of the posse. He aimed to keep that promise. He longed to tell Jonesy the truth of it, but he couldn’t. Even as he saw to the burial details of the marshal and dug the grave, he grieved for Jess. He had brought the buckboard to the cemetery, supposedly to bring shovels and the casket and under the waning moon, had spirited Marshal Richardson to the line cabin near Paradise. The little cabin was secluded and on Sherman property. Only the family knew how to get there. Slim’s Pa had called it Paradise for a reason. The animals that inhabited the patch of land provided many meals for the family.

As the days turned towards weeks and the calendar inched its way towards Thanksgiving, the newspaper reported that the Border War was still raging. The town council had hired temporary deputies to keep the peace but even Slim knew that wasn’t going to last long. He sent a telegram to his old friend Mort Cory. He had told the Town Council that Sheriff Cory was the perfect man for the job. He was honest and fair; good with a gun and a clear thinking man. When Mort rode into Laramie a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, he found a town on the edge of trouble and his old friend Slim Sherman.

“What are you not telling me?” Mort asked Slim one night after a meal at the Sherman Ranch.

“I have no idea what you mean?” Slim tried to act nonchalantly.

“Well, I hear tell that Jess Harper was more than a ranch hand around here. That maybe the two of you had become friends?”

Slim figured that he and Jonesy had been talking. Andy had still not opened his heart to his brother. There was an uneasy peace between them now and Slim felt that he was walking on eggshells every time he wanted to talk with him.

“We all liked him, Mort. He did everything I asked of him and more. I thought I knew him.”

“Has he contacted you?” Mort asked.  The way Slim talked about his former ranch hand spoke volumes. Slim felt betrayed.

Mort eyed his friend as he mumbled, “Why should he? He’s probably miles away from here by now, maybe living under a new name.”

“Well, I thought you should know, there’s some wanted posters going up around town. Reward is $1000 and I heard from a friend of mine in one of the towns near Montana, that there’s a $5000 reward dead or alive for a Jess Harper formerly of Laramie.”

Slim sucked in his breath. He turned away from Mort and waited a beat to catch his breath. When he turned around again, Mort was looking at him closely. “Anything you want to tell me?”

“Just don’t tell Andy, Mort. He feels bad enough as it is.”

A few days before Thanksgiving,  Jonesy mentioned that he would like to serve turkey for dinner on that special day. His announcement was met by a stony silence. He had expected the reaction to his comment to be from Slim who had been working himself into a frenzy these last few weeks. Andy just shrugged and looked down at his plate. Finally, the mild mannered folksy man had a fit.

“I have had it with the two of you! You act like this was the end of the world! We had a ranch hand that didn’t work out! So we get another one come spring. Only this time he won’t stay in the house and drink all my coffee. He won’t be a friend; he’ll be a ranch hand. Now, you Slim, you take Andy and go shoot us a turkey for Thanksgiving and don’t come home without one! Oh, and by the way, you’d better be talking to each other when you return or I wilI be eating at the hotel!”

“Jonesy!” Andy yelped clearly shocked.

“Andy, we don’t yell at each other in this family. Apologize to Jonesy right this instant.” Slim stood quivering with shock and unspoken anger over the whole situation.

Andy apologized and asked to be excused.

“I’m not sorry I yelled at the two of you,” Jonesy told Slim as he took the dishes off the table. “It’s just time that you let go of Jess. He isn’t coming back and if he does, you’ll see him hanged. It’s better to forget him now than continue to hurt yourself and this family too. We gotta live our lives and Thanksgiving is coming up in a few days, then you two have to cut us a tree for Christmas. We did alright without Jess and we will do okay without him again.” Worn out from his speech, Jonesy turned from Slim and started washing dishes. Although he had begun to like Jess, he couldn’t quite wrap his head around the fact that despite his being at the ranch for over a year now, they still didn’t know much about his past. ‘Oh, maybe Slim did’  he mused as he rinsed the dishes in the warm water. Those two had been on their way to a lasting friendship and now that was over.

Later that night, Andy knocked on the former shared bedroom door. “Can I come in?”

Slim said “yes” and Andy walked into the room. He looked uncertaintantly at his brother. Slim smiled and gestured to him. “Why don’t you get in Jess’ bed and we’ll talk about this problem we have,” he suggested.

They both were quiet for a few minutes then Andy began to chuckle. “I haven’t heard a speech like that in a coon’s age! Least of all from Jonesy!”

Slim smiled. “Yeah, he was pretty steamed at us. I guess we haven’t been exactly nice to be around lately. Look, Andy, I’m sorry for not listening to you or caring about how you feel. I’m just upset about Jess.”

Andy slipped out of bed and ran to his brother. Slim wrapped his arms around him and brought the blanket around his shoulders. They snuggled together for awhile. “You used to get in bed with me when you were younger, do you remember?”  Slim felt Andy’s head move against his chest. “You would wrap your arms around me and stay until the thunder stopped.”

“I may be growing up, but I’ll always want your love, Slim. I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you before. I was just angry and worried about Jess.”

Apologies accepted and brotherly love shared, they lay together in Slim’s bed.  “I wonder where he is right now.” Andy sleepily murmured.

“I hope he’s safe and warm.”

Andy looked up at Slim. “You think the same thing I do, don’t you? That maybe there’s more to this than we know.”

“I hope so, Andy. Despite what Mort or Jonesy think, there’s good in Jess Harper and someday we’re going to find out what really happened and why.”

Chapter 5

During the turkey hunt the next day, Slim suggested that they might want to start some new traditions. The brothers decided to invite Sheriff Cory to dinner. He was alone in a strange town and other than Slim had no new friends. They also decided that since Jess had been a big part of their lives, they would remember and honor his gift of friendship. Consequently, on Thanksgiving, they set the table for five, leaving an empty plate at Jess’ place. Mort had brought some “medicinal whiskey” for the occasion and some mild cider for Andy, so the afternoon went by quickly and happier than they thought it would. After Mort left the ranch later that night, Andy went out to their porch. It was a mild night and the stars were hanging low, so close that Andy felt he could lasso them. Slim joined him on the porch a little while later.

“Mind if I join you?” he asked his younger brother.

Andy shook his head. “Do you suppose he’s thinking about us?”

Slim smiled ruefully. “Knowing Jess the way I do, I know he is. I only hope he’s safe tonight. Look Andy, “ he paused not wanting to say too much,” you and I know there’s more to this than what everyone else is thinking. Jess was drinking that day; maybe he was missing the Big Open and just said too much. There’s never an excuse for killing, you know that. I just wish we knew how to help him. Oh, I know I’ll never serve on a posse to bring him in. He’s always going to be branded an outlaw now and the amount for his capture is huge, but I wish I could see him one last time, just to tell him how much I valued his friendship.” Slim turned his head, not wanting Andy to see the moisture falling from his eyes.

Andy got up and hugged his brother. “Sometimes I wish we could find him and hide him on the ranch. But he’s not the kind of a man who would want that. He’d miss being outside and free. I guess, we’ll just have to be happy with our memories. He was just,” Andy couldn’t say anymore. He just hugged Slim harder and the brothers stood on the porch for a long time after that watching the sky turn darker and the stars reflect their tears.

Every two weeks or so, since the whole ordeal began, Slim had ridden over to Paradise, weather permitting, to see how Marshal Richardson was faring. He brought newspapers, a book, some food and of course news from town. The one thing that Slim admired about Marshal Richardson  was that he always inquired about Jess. “I’m doing better than he is, Slim. I am safe and warm and fed. He is wanted for killing me and doing his duty, as far as the army sees it. He will never be able to get back here. Sometimes,” he paused wiping his brow with his bandana, “I wish I had insisted that the army pick someone else, seeing how connected your family was to him.”

“And him to us,” Slim added softly.

Jonesy stood back from the tree and admired his work. His hands automatically found their way to his back as they massaged the sore muscles. He looked over at Andy. The young boy was stringing popcorn for the Christmas tree, although it looked to Jonesy that maybe he was eating more crunchy morsels than stringing them. Slim was working the forge. Since Thanksgiving, the two of them were closer than ever. Andy had gone back to snuggling next to Slim when he read a favorite story or the latest newspaper article. Jonesy was pretty sure that Slim was searching for something about Jess but so far none of them had heard anything.

“You got any strings ready for me yet?” Jonesy called out.

“Yeah,” came the dejected response. “I don’t understand why we have to decorate this tree, Jonesy! No one is gonna see it but us. Jess is not here and Slim is always so sad.”

“Well now, young man, I am going to explain it to you. You hand over that popcorn string and I’ll make us some cocoa. Then we’ll sit down by the fire and take a break.”

Jonesy brought the mugs out to the fireplace and Andy sat down opposite him. “Andy, if we didn’t decorate that tree we would miss it. You and your brother took the time to cut it down and bring it home for all of us. You’d miss that pine smell you know. And where would we put the presents?”

Andy just shrugged. He was so disheartened and grumpy that all he wanted to do was go out to the barn and pound something in his frustration.

“Not every Christmas is a happy one, you know,” Jonesy continued. “You probably don’t remember, being that you were too young, but that first Christmas after your Pa died and Slim was still at war, your Ma insisted that we have a tree. She made an ornament and you drew a picture of your brother. Do you remember that? “

Andy nodded. Both his parents were dead now, but Slim tried so hard to fill the roles for him. Sometimes he acted like his Pa and Ma too.

“Andy, your brother loves you very much. He would do anything for you. He misses Jess too. Those two were more like brothers than boss and ranch hand.” He paused and walked over to the window looking over at the tall rancher framed by the sparks surrounding him. “Andy, I’m going to tell you something you don’t know but I want your word that you’ll never tell your brother that you know what he did for you.”

Andy sat up then. This sounded serious. He nodded solemnly. “I promise Jonesy.”

“One year, the ranch wasn’t doing well. It was a couple of years before Jess came. Every spare penny we made, he would put towards the note at the bank but as Christmas came close, he pulled me into a conversation. He wanted you to have a good Christmas. So, we decided that he and I would exchange one present each and we would buy you some books and a new knife. But then, he changed his mind. One night, after you had gone to bed, he asked me to come with him to his bedroom. He pulled out the drawer where he put his shirts.

“Pick one,” he said.

“I didn’t understand what he wanted me to do.”

“Pick one that you haven’t seen me wear lately and wrap it up and give me that for Christmas, “ he said.

“But Jonesy,” Andy began, “that doesn’t make sense.”

Jonesy shook his head. “Think about it, Andy,” he spoke gently. “It would mean more money for a proper Christmas for you, maybe a store-bought toy, or more food, presents, or maybe some new clothes for you.”

Andy’s eyes began to fill with tears. He hugged Jonesy and went back to the table to string popcorn with a grateful heart.

Two weeks later, on a crisp December morning, the morning stage pulled in. Mose, as usual was his gossipy self and after exchanging pleasantries with Slim, suddenly remembered that he had a package for him. “Who do you know in Montana, Slim?” he asked as he handed the package down.

Slim gripped the stage door, trying to think of what to say. Finally, he settled for an outlandish scenario. “It’s not a him, it’s a woman, Mose. One of the passengers, a very nice lady teacher from back east, promised me a book about Civil War battles, likely that’s it.” He took the package and put it  into their shared bedroom and shut the door. After the stage left he examined the package. There was no note on the book or on the title pages. Finally he started thumbing through the inside  pages until he saw it. The best news he’d read in weeks. On the eighth page, written in small print near the spine was Jess’ familiar scrawl. “War over. Corteen and Cantrell killed. Peace restored. Jess.”

Chapter 6

Barely able to contain his excitement, Slim began to make plans. The first part of this long ordeal was almost over. First and foremost, he had to spring Marshal Richardson  free from his safe prison. Then he had to get him to town to withdraw the posters. He still had to find Jess and he figured that Montana would be the best place to start. Consequently, the next day, he gathered supplies for the line cabin. A shovel, ax, extra ammunition, matches, and blanket went into the first sack. He then got out some sheets for wrapping and whiskey. He also filled two canteens with water. Why he thought to have these items, he could not say, he just somehow felt that he needed them. He put all the items in sacks and loaded them onto a spare ranch horse. He snagged some bread and a can of peaches. At breakfast, he told Jonesy that he was checking the line cabin and if he got caught in a storm, would stay until he could shovel his way out. The explanation, while not completely true, held up and Jonesy just shook his hand and told him to stay safe.

It was slow going at first, as some small storms had dumped several inches of snow along the trail but Alamo finally got into a rhythm and they found their footing. The Marshal was elated, as Slim knew he would be. They cleaned up the cabin and Slim showed him  how to get to the ranch. He knew that it would be easier for Jonesy to get a message to Mort to accompany the Marshal  to town. It was selfish on his part, he knew, but the sooner that people knew Jess wasn’t wanted, the sooner he might be able to get home alive.

It was almost dusk when he reached the line cabin they always used in the past. The wind had picked up and snow was in the air. As he neared the cabin, he heard a rustling noise although there was no sound from the interior. Then, out of the blue, he saw a welcome sight. Traveler was hitched way inside the make do stable. Slim brought Alamo close to his old friend and the two horses greeted each other. Slim grabbed the sacks and made his awkward way through the unshoveled snow.

“Jess, open up! It’s me!” He rapped on the door.  Silence greeted him.

“Jess, it’s me, Slim! Open up! No one is with me. Just open the door.” Silence. Just as Slim was beginning to lose patience, he heard something hit the door from the inside.

“Can’t open it.” Jess’ voice was strained.

“Why the hell not?”

“I can’t walk.”

‘Oh,’ thought Slim. ‘That would make sense.’

“Is the back door barred?”

“No.”

“Okay, then I’m going to shovel my way in. Sit tight.” Slim waded through the deep snow to the back of the cabin. Seldom used, they had sawed a one person opening long ago in case of a problem just like this one. It took some time, but Slim was so anxious to see Jess that he didn’t care if his muscles screamed at him. Finally, he managed to creep inside and immediately shivered. There was no fire, hardly any light and upon a makeshift bed lay his friend clearly in pain.

He walked carefully over to Jess and the two men just stared at each other. Slim brought a canteen close to Jess and after a long gulp laid him back on the straw.

“What happened to you?” Slim asked as his eyes swept over the thin frame, fevered brow and pale complexion of his friend.

“Caught a bullet from a bounty hunter about a week ago. I had to take a chance to get back here. Heck, I knew it wasn’t safe but I had Christmas presents hidden in the eaves of this place and I wanted to get them to you and Andy and Jonesy before I rode away for good. I thought it was a scratch, until I developed a fever.” His eyes closed in utter exhaustion.

“Where are you hit?”

“My thigh.”

Slim sighed. ‘This was a complication he had not figured on’ he thought irritated. “Alright, first, I’m going to start a fire, then light the lamps. I need to tear some of the sheet into strips and see what is going on. It’s snowing out there, so I don’t want to walk out of here at a snail’s pace if we can help it.”

“No fire!” Jess grabbed Slim’s arm.

Slim shook his head. “No need to worry. You’re not a wanted man anymore. I hid the Marshal  in the line cabin at Paradise. When I got your book, I rode out and set him free. He’s probably telling Jonesy the whole story right this minute. By the end of this week, all those wanted posters in town will be torn down. You’ll be a hero, Jess.”

Jess was shocked. “You did all that for me?”

“Hey,” Slim smiled down at Jess, “you seem to forget, you’re part of us. We Sherman’s take care of our own. So, lie back and rest. Sides, if anyone wants you they’ve  gotta go through me first!”

Jess just smiled and closed his eyes. ‘All would be well now. He was safe.’ He thought to himself.

Chapter 7

True to his word, Slim had a fire going in no time. He put up coffee and some water to boil. His knife was at the ready as were the lamps. He was tearing up the sheet as Jess began to stir.

“You’re still here, “ Jess blinked. “I thought I dreamt you.”

“Nope, no dream. I’m here.” Slim responded, relieved and anxious at the same time. “Jess, that wound looks real nasty. It’s swollen and red streaked, probably infected. I have no idea how deep that bullet is and with all that moving around, I don’t know if I should even try to get it.”

“Is it still bleeding?”

“Some,” Slim nodded. “Your call, Jess. I could drain the wound, check for the bullet or close it up.”

“Couldn’t use Jonesy’s liniment?”

Slim shook his head and grinned. “Not this time, I don’t think.”

“Well, I’m already hot and there’s a fire going and the infection will keep me from getting us home faster than the snow flies, so I reckon you gotta cut it open and drain it. “

“You sure? It’s gonna hurt.” Slim knew, deep down, that he would do anything to help his friend but this thing, this open his flesh, drain the infection, cause him more pain, this was something else entirely.

Jess raised his shoulders off the bed and looked hard at his friend. He could understand his fear but heck he’d gone through so much already, he was not about to give up now. “Slim,” he delivered the final determining blow, “I would do it for you.”

Slim blinked; sucked in his breath and reached for his knife and a bowl. “Want to hold onto something? “

“Yeah,” Jess grabbed Slim’s leg and squeezed hard.

Slim placed the bowl under Jess’ thigh and grabbed the cloths. “Okay,” he said, “why don’t you start by telling me what Jamieson was like?”

Jess watched with some fascination as the blood and yellow infected stream trickled down his leg. The mound of infected flesh was hot to the touch.  He gasped when Slim’s heated knife went into his body but  stoically refused to accept the agonizing pain. He conjured up the face of Vern Jamieson, the recruiter who tried to kill him. To his mind, all the pain and heartache had been worth it. The Border War was over. The two main villains were dead, and Marshal Richardson could go back to his life. Even if his was over. He would start again, like he always did. Only this time, he wouldn’t have Slim by his side. As much as he hated to admit it, the tall, lanky blue- eyed rancher had burrowed deep and he would miss him and the boy too. He closed his eyes tight against the pain in his leg but the pain in his heart was never gonna leave him. So much for friends, the fleeting thought skimmed by him. Maybe he was one of those men who never had any.

“Looks like it’s pretty much drained Jess,” Slim’s voice broke into his thoughts.

Jess nodded. “Now what?”

“Your choice,” Slim paused. “Although,” he spoke pressing down lightly on Jess’ thigh, “ I felt the bullet move against the knife.  I think I could get it if I probed deeper.” He looked down at the scrunched up face of his friend.

Jess gripped Slim’s leg and looked up in utter trust. “Go for it, Slim. “

Slim wiped off the blood and heated the knife once more. “Be quick. Be sure.” The mantra dipped and swayed around him. The only way he could do this thing was to block out the fact that this was Jess, the blue- eyed ex-gunslinger, now almost rancher, his friend, and currently hero, although he didn’t realize it yet.  He pointed the tip into the hole he had first created and heard the gasp of pain. He looked down quickly. Jess had passed out. “Okay, Sherman, go for it” he said aloud to the empty room.

The hole widened with ease this time and with some trepeditation, Slim began the arduous journey. Suddenly, without warning, he felt the bullet. It was in deep. He bit his lip in concentration, sweat beginning to form on his brow. Gently and with great care he pushed the offending object up and held his breath. On the wings of a prayer the bullet flew up and over the gaping wound. It landed near Jess’ shoulder with a soft thud and Slim almost passed out. He took a quick swig of the whiskey to steady himself and packed the wound.

Patched up and resting near the fire, Jess finally woke up. Slim was asleep, his body curled around his, protectively. He swallowed hard. Slim stirred and smiled.

“You’re gonna make it,” he said confidently. “I got the bullet out, the bleeding has stopped and your fever,” he stopped and laid a hand against Jess’ forehead, “is down.”

“”How much do I owe you, Doctor Sherman?” smirked Jess.

“Oh, a few hard years of blood, sweat and tears at the cleanest, dullest, quietest ranch this side of the Mississippi.” He spoke , quoting Jess’ slurred words at the saloon that fateful day.

“Much as I’d like to pay you, you’ll have to wait until I get out of Wyoming. See, there’s a price on my head.”

Slim shook his head. “Not anymore, Jess. I thought you understood. I sent Marshal Richardson  back to the ranch and Mort. You’re a hero Jess. Not an outlaw!” he shook his friend gently.  “So, about my offer?”

It finally sunk into his addled brain. “I’m a free man?” he asked incredulously.

“Yes!”

Jess gripped Slim’s hand. “Thank you for saving my life,” He blinked back tears of gratitude.

“You’re welcome. “ Slim draped the blanket around his friend and settled down against him. “It’s snowing hard and it looks like we’ve got some time. So, why don’t you start from the beginning huh? “

Chapter 8

They spent the day and evening talking, sharing and laughing over Jonesy’s antics. Slim finally discovered why Jess had chosen to write his message on the eighth page of the book.

“Aw gee, Slim, smart man that you are! I thought you’d figure it out real quick!” When Slim shook his head,  Jess said ”Slim ,four letters right?” Slim nodded. “Jess, four letters, right?” he chuckled at Slim’s expression. Jess tried to minimize his actions in Canada but Slim kept probing for the whole story so much that Jess finally gave up and told him about his trip to Waterton, the fights, the training drills, and finding out about the takeover of the citizens. He always felt that Corteen was using Jeanette and keeping her away from her father and wondered aloud to Slim what would have happened if Corteen and the raiders left the town.

“You didn’t think that he would leave did you?” Slim asked as he watched Jess closely.

“I don’t know, Slim. I liked her and her father. The whole situation was awful. The people were always being watched. “ Jess moved closer to the fire. ‘There was still more to tell,’ he thought to himself. ‘Here’s where Slim is gonna think I was a hero.’

“After they let me out of their makeshift prison, they told me we were going to ambush an army caravan and get their guns. There were conducting so many drills that the citizens wouldn’t know any better.  But I saw Jean right before I left and told her the truth. I figured that Corteen was on to me, cause he had me riding right in front. Jean, somehow got to the army before we did and they were ready. I managed to ride over to their side and that’s when I saw Jean die.” He stopped for a brief moment in remembrance of the blond-haired woman who had paid the ultimate price for her fellow citizens. “I knew I had to completely stop Corteen and Cantrell so I swam over to the dock, blew up the bridge and killed both men.”

“How did the army react when they heard that Cantrell and Corteen were dead?” Slim asked.

“The Colonel was so darn pleased. He wanted me to go back to Laramie with a column but I  knew there were some frustrated vigilantes after me. You see, we hadn’t been paid and they figured that I made a deal to get paid first and took their pay. Without a general to guide them, they had no war to fight. Some of them formed into groups but they had no leaders and were quickly arrested.   Then I heard about bounty hunters and I didn’t want the army involved so I just ran. One night in the open I decided to come  back here. I had bought presents for you and the family. I watched and waited until  you all left for town. I had already made plans to ride away but I saw you and Andy on the porch one night and I couldn’t go. Somewhere between the Laramie road and the trail to the line cabin, I got hit.”

“Why didn’t you go to town and see Sam or come to the ranch? “

“Did you see those posters? Dead or alive, Slim! I couldn’t put you and the family at risk.”

‘And there it was again!’ thought Slim.’ Where does he get the idea that he has to protect us all the time?’ Aloud, he muttered, “When we can finally travel, I’m taking you to Sam. I want to make sure you’re going to be alright.”

Jess sighed and shook his head. “When are you gonna let me get up?”

“Maybe tomorrow, Jess. Your body needs rest. Say, want to try those biscuits? “

“How old are they?”

“Jonesy made them the day I left. Say, we could heat them in a pan over the fire and spread some of that peach jam Jonesy made. I brought it with me.”

“You thought of everything didn’t you?” Jess grinned.

“I tried to. I hadn’t figured on you being shot though. Andy must be getting worried.”

“You know, when it stops snowing and you can dig a path out of here, you should go home. I can rest up  and then follow. “

Slim stared at him. He couldn’t quite believe that Jess was being this obstinate. ‘Was he still afraid?’ He shook his head.

“Nope, Pard.” He spoke keeping his voice gentle. “When it stops snowing, and I can dig a path out of here we are BOTH going home, together. That’s where you belong, you know. We both make a good team. And besides,” he rested his hand on his shoulder, “Andy would raise a fit if I came home without you.”

Jess was stunned. He opened his mouth to speak and then closed it again. The words “Pard” and “Home” were never spoken to him in the same sentence before. “I,” he stopped. “Thank you,” was all he managed to say before he became too embarrassed at the overwhelming feelings that threatened to slam him into the floor.

Slim squeezed Jess’ shoulder. “You’re welcome, Pard. Now how about those biscuits? “

The next morning they discovered that the snow had stopped. The sun was blinding but Slim put on his heavy winter gear and picked up the shovel. At Jess’ suggestion, he tied off on end of the stout rope he had brought to the front door and tied the other end around his waist. “Don’t want to lose you now!” Jess had joked.

It took several hours to make the trek to the makeshift barn. Both horses were fine. He checked their feed and water supply and spent some time with both of them, rubbing them down and telling them they were going home soon. Then, after tying off the rope to the barn, he slowly crunched his way back to the cabin. Jess had managed to maneuver himself closer to the fire and had made coffee. Together they got Slim out of his wet clothes and boots and snuggled under his own blanket that Jess had put near the fire.

“What day is it?” Jess asked as they sipped their coffee.

“The twenty first I think,” Slim mumbled.

“Almost Christmas,” Jess said. “Do you think we’ll make it home by then?”

“Guess it depends on the snow melting. It would be hard going through all those drifts, that’s for sure.”

The heat from the fire, the warm coffee and biscuits were having an effect on the two men and they both drifted off to sleep.

Chapter 9

“Slim!”

Slim heard his name being called but he was deep into a very pleasant dream and didn’t want to get up. He burrowed his head into the warm blanket.

“Slim! Wake up!”

He was getting irritated now. “Go away,” he mumbled.

“It’s raining! ”Jess shook him.

‘Oh great!’ he thought and then as the word finally found its way into his brain, he mumbled “how’s the snow?”

“Going down some,” Jess replied.

Slim struggled to get up. For some reason, he felt slightly grumpy. He looked out the window. The snow level was down. Now they just had to hope that it didn’t freeze.

“Are you okay?” Jess asked as Slim shook out the kinks in his limbs.

“Yeah, I guess. It’s just that its been a few days and I’m worried about Andy and Christmas being so close and food running low and,” his voice came to an abrupt halt when Jess grabbed him.

“I swear, you could worry the size of Texas! Don’t you see, we can go home soon! “

Slim brightened. “When you put it that way!”

They both grinned at each other and set about putting together a makeshift breakfast.  “Jess, “ Slim asked, “what do you worry about?”

Without hesitation, Jess shrugged, “decent women and being left afoot.”

“No, I mean really, way down deep.” Slim persisted.

Jess looked hard at his friend. “Okay, fire and losing the people I love.” He looked embarrassed. “And you?” he asked.

“I worry about Andy and if I’m doing everything I can for him. I worry about the ranch. I worry about the note we have at the bank. And I worry about the people I love. Oh, and that includes you.”

Jess ducked his head. “Me?”

“Yeah, you. I knew that I had to remain quiet about your committing murder, well pretend murder. I worried that you’d get killed in Canada. So many times I’ve worried about you when you leave the ranch to help someone or solve a wrong. I guess this time was worse because no one else knew where you had gone and why.”

“Is that why you came after me all those times?”

“Yeah,” he spoke honestly.

Jess smiled. “Thank God for that!” he said.

After breakfast they decided to pick up the cabin in case they could leave the next day. Slim, being more accustomed to the weather patterns in Wyoming, was still apprehensive about the frozen terrain but to their amazement the next morning dawned bright and clear with no hint of snow or rain. They packed the rest of their things and Jess’ presents into the sacks and Slim saddled up their horses. Slowly, with great care, they rode down the soggy trail.

At noon, they stopped for some rest and for Slim to check Jess’ bandage. Everything looked good and they continued onward. As they neared a clearing, Jess suddenly stopped short. He put a finger to his lips and Slim slowly slid his rifle out of its sheath.

“Man or beast?” he whispered to Jess.

“Man,” he motioned in the direction that the other man was traveling in. Slim motioned towards some large bushes and Jess hid himself, gun at the ready in case it was needed.

Slim sat still, out in the open waiting and watching. As the unfamiliar man neared him, he raised his rifle. “ Who are you?” he demanded.

“My name is unimportant. I am looking for a murderer.”

“You’re on my land,” Slim shouted back. “I’d think about that as you ride off!”

“I expected you to say that,” the man yelled, “he used to work for you. But the law is the law and if I see him, I’m going after that reward.”

Fear gripped Slim’s belly but he tried to remain calm. “ That man isn’t wanted any more. The posters have been called off. Now, get off my land. I won’t be warning you again.”

“Says you!”

“Says the law. Go into town and check with Sheriff Cory before you get your head blown off,”  he growled. “Sides it’s Christmas. Do you really want to get killed  on Christmas? “

The would-be bounty hunter looked at Slim. “I’ll be back!” he warned.

“No you won’t “ Slim sounded positive. “The posters have been pulled.”

Jess had watched the exchange from the nearby bush and shook his head as he joined Slim a few yards down from the exchange. “ How did you know he wouldn’t draw?”

“I didn’t.” he spoke, relief in his voice. “I just hoped he was tired and hungry and didn’t want to kill or be killed on Christmas. “

“Well, in any case, that was a darn brave thing you did!”

“You’d do it for me,” Slim replied.

“Dadgumit!You’re right!”

Chapter 10

The trip home was taking longer than usual. Slim kept looking over his shoulder and saw Jess keep moving around in his saddle trying to get comfortable. Although both men knew that Jess was mostly healed, he hadn’t ridden in awhile. Finally, Slim’s patience wore itself out.

“Jess, hold up a minute.” He debated, torn between letting Jess have his way and hearing for the umpteenth time that “he was fine,” and the toll of riding that was affecting  his health. He knew what he needed to do, and so as Jess waited, he  confronted his friend.

“Jess, we need to talk.”

Jess waited patiently. It was clear that Slim was fuming about something and his worries were getting the best of him. He had a feeling that whatever it was had something to do with him.

“Jess, we both know that you are feeling better and walking better too. But you haven’t ridden in awhile and I’m guessing that your leg, while not bleeding, hurts some? “

‘There was no hiding it,’ Jess knew. He couldn’t fool Slim. He just nodded in resignation.

“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to ride double. You get off Traveler and we’ll ride Alamo. He’s used to carrying extra weight.” Slim dismounted and took Jess’ slicker and extra blanket off Traveler. He helped Jess off his horse and onto Alamo. He swung the blanket onto Jess’ shoulders and firmly placed an arm around his friend.  They were both quiet for the next mile or so and privately, Jess began to realize that Slim’s suggestion was the right one. He leaned back towards Slim.

“Feeling better?” Slim asked gently.

“Good call,Pard,” Jess replied. “What made you think on it?”

“I knew you were trying to be brave and suck up the pain. So I made the decision. Oh, I know we both want to be home for Christmas, but we really don’t have a schedule and your life is worth more than getting home at a certain day.”

By the time they reached the rise above the ranch it was dusk. They looked  down at the serene scene below. There were horses in the corral and Jonesy had started a fire. The barn door was closed. For a minute they debated whether or not to leave the horses tied to their hitching rails, but they needed to be cared for so they opened the barn door and found their stalls. Andy had swept them clean and Jess and Slim un -saddled their mounts in record time. As they rubbed them down, they heard Jonesy begin to play the piano.

“That’s a real beautiful song, “ Jess spoke reverently as Jonesy played the second verse. “Do you know the words?” They walked towards the front door, listening to the tune.

Slim nodded. “It was a poem first. It was written by Edmund Sears in 1850. Someone wanted him to write a melody to it and that’s what he came up with. It’s called “It came upon the midnight clear.” He was a pastor and he wrote it for his congregation. I bet you can get Jonesy to sing it for you later.” And then, because he couldn’t wait a moment later, Slim knocked on the door.

It seemed so reminiscent of the time he’d returned from town after killing Roney Bishop and getting the piano for Jonesy, that Jess wanted to cry from the emotions that swirled around him. Jonesy’s warm handshake and murmured “welcome home Jess” and of course Andy, whose happy tears flooded his eyes when he beheld his hero/friend. All Slim did was clasp a warm hand on his shoulder and squeeze it gently. “Not to repeat myself, “ he whispered to Jess, “ but I told you they’d be over the moon happy to see you.”

In record time, they were divested of their outer clothing and dressed in warm clothes. A hot meal of Mulligan stew and biscuits graced their plates and Jess filled in the puzzle pieces of the Marshal’s story. They admired the tree and Jess finally got to put the presents under the boughs. Later Andy brought the Sherman Bible down and Slim read the Christmas story aloud. Before dessert, Jess asked Jonesy to sing the song that he and Slim had heard while in the barn. As he got out the music, Slim leaned over Jess’ shoulder.

“You know Pard, this song is almost like what happened to you.”

“How’s that?” Jess asked.

“Oh the words, Jess. Wasn’t that last skirmish called The Midnight Rebellion? And the world of Montana and Canada sure was weary of war, and we heard the music from afar?”

Jess privately thought that Slim needed to have a long sleep but he wisely said nothing. Instead, he smiled at the man who had become his Pard, hugged the boy who had befriended him first and finally, happily lifted his voice in joyous song on that Christmas night.

***The End***

Authors  Note:

As you are all aware by now, I try and keep to canon or to factual events, and unless I am writing an AU story, I try and keep the language true to the time period as well. So before I began this newest adventure, I researched The Border War. The Laramie writers, who I admire immensely, were writing a script for entertainment purposes and trying, I believe, to write believable stories based on events that might have happened in the 1870s or thereabouts.  For instance, the Rebel Major (on the episode) was named Owen Cantrell. The real “major” was a man called William Quantrill who, according to accounts died in 1865. If you are interested, you can go to military wiki org. and click on Quantrill Raiders or Archives Gov. and explore online Fenians civil war.

I could not find any reference to a Border War such as was portrayed in the episode. There were several skirmishes because of land disputes. If anyone can reference the “Rebellion” please pm me.

Next, I am not a doctor, so Jess’ “operation” was based on what I read was done in previous stories.

I would be sorely amiss if I failed to thank Calico West for her invaluable help not only for this story but all the others written over the last year. She “held my hand” as I navigated this site; bolstered my feelings of inadequatecy; and finally kept me on track with spelling, canon; and the Laramie friendship we all share.

And lastly, the song on which the title is based was composed by Edward Sears and the lyrics are below.

Everyone have a safe and Merry Christmas!

The lyrics to “It Came Upon The Midnight Clear “ are below:

It came upon a midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:

“Peace on the earth, goodwill to men,
From heaven’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world;

Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;

And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,

Look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!

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