By Timothy W. Booher
Chopping wood was a chore that Jess Harper truly hated. It was Saturday afternoon and more than anything else he just wanted to be passed out drunk in a Laramie saloon. Yet there he stood in the sweltering July sun, stripped to the waist, shirt and hatless. As he swung his axe repeatedly at the huge stump in back of the Sherman ranch he couldn’t help but think of his friend’s Slim and Andy who were off to a Saturday social to raise money to build a new jail. The Sherman ranch was off the main road to town and served as the local stage stop so Jess didn’t think the least unordinary when he saw an approaching rider. Reigning to a halt about 20 feet from where Jess stood axe in hand sweat dripping fom his thick black curly hair. He noticed this man had the quality that every cattle rancher would pay top dollar for. He was lean with a drooping mustache, dressed in khacki workshirt, sheephide vest with concho’s, chaps and a wide brimmed stetson. He sat a saddle like a cowboy, an obvious good puncher, but his gun hung low, tied down above the knee and his long arm hung at his side, ever ready. This was the kind of a man who served a double purpose, part time cowhand full time killer. This breed of man was a very economical blessing to the cattle baron because he saved the money of hiring both hands and extra killer’s as well. Despite admiring his qualities, Jess knew there was something about this man he didn’t like. His hat and shirt hung on a nearby corral fence but Jess Harper didn’t remove his gunbelt even when performing everyday chores. He’d seen too many men die unarmed, surprised by gutless men or backshooters. As the rider introduced himself saying “My name is Rodriguez” his horse swayed a little to the side in Jess’ view revealing his brand and the outfit he worked for. Rocker 44, Mel Simm’s outfit. Now Jess knew why he didn’t like this man. He’d watched his friend Slim visit the quaint grave of his father on the hillside above the house too many times. Slim’s pa had been backshot by one of Simm’s pistoleros, nobody knew exactly which one for sure, it could have even been this Rodriguez . He dropped the axe and his hand fell to his side, his stare hardening in the eyes of the mounted man in front of him. Seeing that Jess was alarmed Rodriguez exclaimed “Wow friend, no need in”….. Jess cut him off there saying “I’m not your friend, what the hell do you want”? Rodriguez was an obvious cold fish killer but even he got nervous around a man like Jess Harper. Wanting to deliver his message and get out as quickly as possible Rodriguez reached into his shirt pocket, noticing as he did that Jess’ right hand tightened around the butte of his revolver. He produced a note handing it to Jess saying “Give this to Mr Sherman.” His outstretched arm didn’t meet Jess’ who scowled at him as he reused to reach out and accept. So Rodriguez let the small piece of folded paper fall to the ground and said “Good day” then turned his horse and headed off in the direction of the Simm's ranch. Jess waited till he was out of sight over a distant hill, then stooped down and picked up the note. He smiled, thinking to himself about how such an obviously tough man could be so wary. Maybe that was why Simm’s men were well noted bushwhacker’s. He stuffed the note in his shirt pocket not even wanting to read. This beef was between Slim Sherman and Mel Simm’s. Jess would simply be around when they finally tangled to see that Slim got a fair fight. By the time Slim and Andy returned later in the afternoon, Jess had long since given up on the stump. Inside the cabin he sat at a table with old Jonesy, both men sipping on glasses of cold lemonade. Wasn’t good enough to get ya drunk Jess thought but after choppin wood all day in 80 degree weather horse leakings would taste good. The door swung open and Andy came running through, straight to the chair beside Jess who handed him what was left of the sour lemonade. Andy looked at the half drained glass and made a bitter face exclaiming “Pew.” Jess removed Andy’s hat and playfully ruffled his hair. Just about that time Slim walked in, an angry look on his face saying “I’d hoped we might have some firewood before next winter set in”. Jess answered “I was too busy taking care of your visitor’s”. Looking surprised Slim asked “Who” and Jess handed him the note. When he saw the name on the note he asked “Why’d ya let him ride out of here alive.” Jess answered “Well of course he didn’t deliver in person, he sent some tinhorn for that.” Then he asked “What’s it say”? Slim answered “It’s an invitation, to dinner”. Jess looked stunned, but old Jonesy managed to say “At his place I hope cause I aint cookin for that scum.” Slim continued “And it’s tonight, he’s having a big barbeque, I wonder how he likes the taste of lead”. Jess looked at him squarely asking “ You aint serious about goin are you”? Slim replied “Of course I am, if he had the brass in his horns to invite me, I’m gonna repay his kindness”. Finishing his sentence his hand dropped to his gun. Jess Harper sat in his chair staring up at the gun on Slim’s hip thinking ‘It’s Saturday night and I ought to be drunk with a Wyoming whore on my arm’. About an hour and a half later sun was about to set on the huge Rocker 44 spread as Slim and Jess rode up to the gate. The entrance was a huge arch topped by an R44 brand a detailed replica of the one that marked all the horses and cow’s owned by Mr. Melvin Simms. That’s what everybody referred to the mighty Wyoming cattle king as, Mr. Simms. He’d even signed his letter to Sherman as such. Riding under the arch and up the path to the front of the house, Slim and Jess noticed that dozens of fine buggy’s and fancy rigs, some adorned with gold were parked in the lawn in front of the house. The entire Wyoming Stockman’s Association would be here and all their hired gun’s as well. That’s why there were horses everywhere as well, tied to anything that was nailed down, as the stables were packed to capacity. Dismounting they were greeted by a young Mexican stable hand who took their horses. Walking up a short flight of miniature stairs onto the porch of Simms three story house which looked more like a cross between a Parisian bathhouse and a Georgia cotton plantation than a ranch house they were greeted by Mr. Rodriguez who looked at the two dusty looking men standing in front of him, he said “Ah Mr. Sherman and Mr. Harper, pleasure to see you ,the boss will be delighted”. Jess noticed that Rodriguez was dressed in formal evening wear and his hair peaked out from under a polished sombrero. He was a bit more dandified than he’d been earlier that afternoon, but he was still wearing his gun. Rodriguez swung the door open and the two men entered. As they walked inside Jess looked back at Rodriguez through the door frame giving him a puzzled expression and shaking his head thinking “Why is this prick being so nice to me”. The moment they entered they were both greeted by a mellee of noise. Hands clapping, feet stomping, voices shouting and laughing as if they had just entered a religious tent revival. Jess knew they weren't the guests of honor but rather these cattlemen were poking fun at the small rancher, trying to shame him. A fancily dressed gentleman with a waxed mustache stepped forward.
Neither man recognized him and vice versa he knew nothing of Slim or Jess. Looking at Jess covered in dust the man obviously mistook him for a homesteader. He laughed at Jess saying “Such attire and those boots, someone should teach you how to dress”. Everyone laughed as the giggling snobbish entrepreneur pulled out a fine satin cloth and bent down to polish Jess’ boot’s. Jess simply reared his foot back and kicked the man square in the face. He looked down at the man seeing that he’d broken his nose and said “Hope you got enough money to buy a new face”. Just then one of the man’s hired gun’s stepped into the center of the room and reached for his gun, but slid it back into it’s holster when he saw how quickly Jess drew his. Suddenly the entire room was deadened quiet as Jess’ booming voice announced “Alright, I came here to eat barbequed beef and by God I’m gonna eat some if I gotta chew through every man’s hide in this room”. Slim had stood there the whole time motionless eyeing the man who sat at the center of the table in front of them surrounded by dozen’s of immaculately dressed, well spoken men. He couldn’t help but notice that there were several other tables set up in the back ground to serve the accompanying gunmen who weren’t deemed as being good enough to sit with their employer’s at such a function, especially since the largest newspaper in Cheyenne was being represented by none other than Mr. Owen Wister. Jess also took note of the division between bossman and employee and his cockier side couldn’t resist having a little fun. ‘Hell with em’ he thought ‘I don’t work for these bastards’. Besides he recognized a familiar face seated right next Mel Simm’s. The man was wearing a badge over his coat and sported a neatly trimmed mustache, bowler hat with a huge plum and immaculate attire but he was out of place. Only his political position put him a notch above the hired gun’s at the other table where he himself belonged. His name was Frank Canton, the sheriff of Cheyenne and he had once locked Jess up in his palace like jail for which had been built and payed for by Stockman’s Association money to house homesteaders who had been railroaded as rustler’s. Slim followed Jess as the two strode up to the table where Mel Simm’s and his esteemed colleagues were converged. Their chatter ceased and to Slim’s surprise his nemesis invited him to sit down. When Slim took his seat Jess uninvitedly pulled one up as well, seating himself directly across from sheriff Canton. As he sat back in his huge chair which was topped by a set of mounted steer horn’s Mel Simm’s began addressing Slim Sherman. “My invitation was extended to you because I am a peaceful man who would rather make deals than hand out death warrant’s”. He continued “So I’ll make you the same deal I made your father, I’ll give you and your brother job’s on my ranch and someday you might even become an association member in good standing”. When he said that he motioned backwards to the table behind him meaning that Slim could join his stable full of killer’s. Slim pictured his father in his mind as he said “No”. Mel Simms tried to retain his cool composure as he came back a little more forcefully with “Mr. Sherman, you do realize that I don’t have to buy an inch of ground from you, in fact the only reason I have tolerated you and your lot thus far is because I own 72% stock in the Wyoming Overland Stage Company thru which you are registered as an operator, as soon as I take care of a few investor’s who stand in my way I’ll own the whole thing and I will push you and your whole lot off the face of the earth”. By now Jess had begun to devour a huge plate of pork rib’s but he used only one hand to eat. His other was under the table, gun drawn and aimed at sheriff Frank Canton’s leg. Jess eyed Canton in a wild cruel way ,smiling and licking the barbeque sauce off his upper lip. Canton was perspiring, small beads of sweat oozing from his forehead. Silently reading Jess’ thoughts he knew that there was nothing that Jess Harper would like better than to blow a hole in the lawman’s kneecap with one hand while continuing to eat with the other. Just as Jess was starting to enjoy his meal he felt a hand on his shoulder. He took one eye off Canton just long enough to see Slim standing saying “Let’s go, I believe I’d rather clean cow shit out of my barn than to eat dinner with it”. Jess stood, wiping the barbeque sauce from his lip’s with the sleeve of his shirt and belching as loud as he could prompting all the cattlemen to stare and make comment’s. He smiled and shifted his glance from one end of the table to the other as he turned to walk away. Later that night as they rode alone in the darkness on the road back to Laramie, Slim and Jess knew instinctively that they were being followed. When they had gotten within about seven miles of the Sherman ranch they heard a gunshot ring out in the distance behind them followed by shouting and scuffling and then the sound of horses scattering. Both Jess and Slim feared an ambush lay in wait behind them, but against their better judgement they turned their horses and rode back. After riding about three miles or so they could make out a silhouette of man’s body lying in the road illuminated by the moonlight. Riding up they could see Mel Simm’s lying on the ground, lung shot, choking to death on his own blood. Slim dismounted and walked up to Simm’s who gasping for air managed to say “Go to hell Sherman”. Then his lung’s filled with blood and he died. On the ground beside Simm’s body Slim noticed a glowing piece of silver and recognized it as one of the concho’s from Rodriguez’ vest. Jess was still saddled gun drawn when Slim walked over to him handing him the silver concho. Taking it in his hand Jess also recognized it and remembered the owner. Jess' mind rat’onalized that maybe Rodriguez wasn’t such a prick after all as he looked down at Simm’s body exclaiming “Guess he didn’t bother to buy up too much stock on his friends.”
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