Authors: Robert J. Thomas
Sara came shuffling quickly out of the back and she almost screamed when she saw Jess standing there. “Jess,” she exclaimed, as she ran to him and gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek and Jess was much more comfortable with that. As she did, she could see the butt of the shotgun strapped to his back.
Jim interrupted. “Come on into the kitchen Jess. Sara will put on a pot of coffee and I’ll bet she can whip up a few biscuits for you.”
They walked into the kitchen, Sara still clutching Jess’ right arm as if she would never let it go. She couldn’t help but notice the same unique gun and holster Jess had been wearing when he had left town several months ago. She wondered to herself how many men Jess might have killed so far. Jess sat down with Jim and Sara hastily went about making coffee and some fresh biscuits. She threw in some milk gravy for good measure. Sara served up the coffee and biscuits and they sat around talking small talk for a few minutes before the conversation turned in the direction that he knew it eventually would.
“Well Jess,” asked Jim, “did you finally make things right and finish the job you set out to do? Did you catch up with all three of those bastards you were looking for?” Jim already knew the answer; it was simply a question to get the conversation going.
Jess took another long drink of coffee and sat his cup down. He looked at Jim for a moment before he answered. He noticed that Sara had stopped what she was doing and turned to hear the answer. He wondered for a moment if they would think less of him for what he had done. He figured that he needed to be truthful with them since that’s how it’s supposed to be with good friends. Good friends stick through thick and thin and good or bad. His answer was slow and deliberate.
“I hunted every one of them down and made sure they paid with their life for what they did. I don’t feel bad about it either. Those men deserved to die and any others like them.” Sara hung her head a little as she fetched some more butter.
Jim nodded at Jess as if he understood and agreed with Jess. “You’re already getting quite a reputation, Jess. We’ve heard about some of it back here. Most people know about some of your gunfights, especially the gunfights with Blake Taggert and Nevada Jackson. Those two were as fast as they come. People also heard about Blake Taggert being the one who murdered that family just outside of Red Rock. Most people like what you did about it.”
Sara was watching Jess all the time Jim was talking to him. She could see the dramatic difference in him. He looked ten years older even though she knew he had only been gone about four months. And she could see the coldness and the darkness that lay just below the surface of his eyes. It was a strange look. It was a cold, hard unnerving look and yet she could still see the good deep down and almost hidden unless you looked for it. She could also see the death in his eyes. He knew she was looking him over. He knew that she was sad about the change in his life but there was nothing that he or anyone else could do about it. He wasn’t sure that he even wanted to do anything about it. He was what he was—a mankiller. In his mind, someone had to do it. In his mind, it was right.
“Jess,” Sara asked, “how many men have you killed so far?”
At first, Jess thought that to be a strange question, but the more he thought about it, he realized it was a question that she had to ask. There was no point in dodging the question, but Jess also figured that there was no point in giving exact numbers or details.
“Let’s just say that I’ve killed more men than most men twice my age. But I will tell you that every single one of them deserved to die. I never started a fight except for Red Carter and two of the three who murdered my family and I never drew first on anyone except for Hank Beard and that was because he tried to ambush me in my room like a coward in the middle of the night.”
Sara put her head down and looked at her plate. She had prayed that Jess might be able to have some kind of normal life and she knew now that it would never happen.
Jim broke the awkward silence. “We heard you went into the bounty hunting business. Is that true?”
“Yes. A man has to make a living somehow and it seems to be what I’m good at. And I found out that it pays pretty well too. Besides that, I promised myself that I would only hunt the worst of the lot. I will only hunt down men who have murdered and raped innocent people who have done nothing to deserve it. I won’t stand for that. If I run into a man who had done something as terrible as the three men who murdered my family, I would call him out and kill him whether there’s a bounty on him or not. Men like that don’t deserve to live among the rest of us.”
“It’s hard to argue that one,” Jim said.
“Well, enough about me,” Jess said, trying to change the subject. “How are you two doing? How has business been? I noticed no one has come in since I arrived. Is it a slow day or what?”
Jim shook his head in disgust. “Every day is a slow day since that jackass of a new sheriff took over.”
“I’m glad to hear that you finally got a new sheriff in town but what does the new sheriff have to do with your business?”
Jim acted like he didn’t want to answer. Sara looked at Jim with that look that most men should understand right away but never do and said, “You might as well tell him. He’s going to find out anyway and he is going to need to know.”
“Need to know what?” Jess asked.
“Oh hell, Sara’s right. I might as well tell you. I don’t guess that it will come as any surprise that Dick Carter is still after you for killing his son Red. When that one bounty hunter came back—what was his name—oh yeah, Frank Reedy. Well, Reedy came back and gave Carter his money back and told him he wouldn’t have anything more to do with hunting you down. Carter was madder than a peeled rattler and I don’t think he’s cooled off one bit yet.”
“I already know that,” replied Jess. “What I don’t know is what all that has to do with your business?”
“Well, I’m-a-gettin’ to that part if you’ll let me finish.” Jess smiled and picked up his coffee cup and let Jim go on.
“Now, Dick Carter, being the rich son of a bitch that he is, puts up a new general store right down the street and then he uses his money and influence to get a new mayor elected here in town. Then, after he has the mayor in his pocket, he tells the mayor who he wants for the new sheriff in town and it just happens to be one of Carter’s men. Now Carter has threatened everyone in town to use the new general store and he’s using the sheriff to enforce it. Anytime one of my old customers comes in here, the sheriff comes in and scares them off. Hell, Carter’s got the whole town terrified and as nervous as a whore in church and the worst part of it is I think he kind of likes it. And to make matters worse, Carter is using his money to discount everything below my cost just to put me out of business. Hell, he doesn’t care about losing a few dollars.”
“But why? What does Dick Carter have against the two of you? You’ve never done anything to him that I’m aware of.”
“It’s because we’re friends of yours. He knows we’re like family and when he tried to get us to say something bad about you when he first came into the store after what happened, we wouldn’t. Well, that pissed him off and I told him to get the hell out of my store! The rest is history and damn if we ain’t just about done in. I don’t think we can hold out much longer. He’s a mean old cuss, that Carter.”
Jess sat his coffee cup down on the table and looked at the coffee in the cup as if he was looking for some answer but he already knew what the answer would be. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. His son, Red was the same way. If anyone is at fault in his son’s death, it’s Dick Carter himself. Sure, I shot Red, but Red deserved it and Dick Carter raised him to be a bad one.”
“Jess,” said Sara, “why don’t you leave town now before Carter finds out you’ve come back. He has a gang of hired killers and as soon as he knows you’re here, they will surely be coming after you. Some of his hired guns are in town right now and I’ll bet they already know. You have nothing to prove here. Why not ride out of here while you still can?”
Jess thought about what Sara had just said but he didn’t have to think long about it. He knew what he had to do and he made his decision right then and there. That’s the way it was with Jess. He set his mind to something and there was no changing it after the decision was made. “I’m not here to prove anything, Sara. But the fact is neither of you abandoned me when times got tough and I don’t plan to abandon you either. You both took me in and helped me at a time that I needed it the most. You fed me and left food on my doorstep while I was learning how to fend for myself. You helped bury my family and stuck with me through some tough times. My pa taught me to never forget such things. You were there for me, and now I’m here for you. Jim, you always told me that you always find out who your real friends are when the chips are down and you’ve always practiced what you preach. Well, so do I. Here’s what we’re going to do. First, I have more money in the bank already than I need with my simple lifestyle. I’m going to have Mr. Jameson deposit two hundred dollars into your bank account today.”
Jim interrupted quickly. “No, Jess. We don’t want you handing out money for our problems.”
“Well, who’s not letting someone finish what they’re trying to say now?”
“Sorry,” Jim replied, sheepishly.
“As I was saying, after I have the money deposited into your account, I will pay a visit on the new sheriff and let him know that I won’t stand for any more interference with your business from this day forward from him or anyone else.”
“You know he’s going to ride out and tell Carter five minutes after you see him, don’t you?” Jim asked.
Jess smiled a slight but devious smile. “Hell, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Jess gave Sara another hug and shook Jim’s hand. Before he let go of Jim’s hand he said, “You should have sent for me.”
“I figured you were a little busy,” replied Jim.
“Well, I was, but I have plenty of time now.”
Jess walked out heading straight for the sheriff’s office.
“Oh God, Jim,” said Sara, shaking her head nervously, “he’s going to get himself killed for sure and we are going to be the cause of it.”
Now Jim had the devious smile beginning to form across his lips.
“Better men than Dick Carter and his bunch have tried—and failed.”
The new sheriff in town was a man by the name of Dan Newcomb. He was one of Carter’s hired guns, but he certainly wasn’t the best of the lot. Sure, he was fast, but not all that fast and those who really knew him knew that he had a yellow streak down his back wide enough to fill the space between two fence-posts. He would face off with someone but only if he was fairly certain that he could take him. Newcomb did what he was paid to do, which was whatever Dick Carter told him to do. When Jess reached the sheriff’s office, the sheriff was just walking down the boardwalk from the opposite direction. He noticed Jess standing in front of the office, staring at him.
“Looking for someone?” Newcomb asked, nonchalantly.
“Actually, I think I just found him, unless you’re going to tell me that you found that sheriff’s badge and pinned it on for fun.”
“No, it’s my badge, and I am the Sheriff here. Now, just who the hell are you?”
“My name is Jess Williams.”
The name struck Newcomb instantly. The truth was there wasn’t one man on Dick Carter’s payroll who didn’t know the whole story about Jess Williams and how he had killed Dick’s only son, Red. Newcomb knew all about Jess and his reputation. He tried to stay calm but Jess was reading Newcomb like a book and he could tell that he was as nervous as a titmouse watching a circling hawk.
“So you’re the Jess Williams everyone is talking about. You’ve got quite a reputation for such a young man. Did you also know that Mr. Carter still has a personal bounty on your head in the amount of three thousand dollars?”
“You plan on collecting it?” asked Jess, staring deep into Newcomb’s eyes, unnerving him even more, if that was at all possible.
“Well, I am the Sheriff. I suppose I should lock you up and let Judge Hollingsworth decide what to do with you.”
Newcomb hadn’t said it with very much conviction and even if he had, it wouldn’t have meant much to Jess anyway. “Let’s get something straight right up front, Newcomb. You’re no sheriff regardless of what that badge you’ve got pinned on your shirt says. You’re nothing more than a hired gun for Carter and that’s exactly how I plan to treat you. Now, if you plan to do anything more than flap your gums together, let’s get on with it. If not, get the crack of your sorry ass up on your horse and run on out and tell Dick Carter that Jess Williams is back in town and that he doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon.”
Newcomb thought momentarily about going for his gun. It would be such a feather in his hat to take out Jess Williams. He would be considered a deadly gunslinger if he did that. He thought about that for a half of a second, and then his senses returned to him. He touched the brim of his hat and nodded. “Well then, I’ll let Mr. Carter know that you’re in town. Any other message you want me to give to him?”
“As a matter-of-fact, yes. Tell him the next person that does anything to hurt Jim or Sara Smythe, or their business for that matter, will answer to me, and that includes you too, Newcomb.”
Newcomb tipped his hat and as he walked away he said, “I’ll be sure to give him your message. I don’t think he’s going to like it though.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” replied Jess, with that same devious smile.
Well, that was that. The gauntlet had been thrown down and Jess was smart enough to know that it meant war. He knew Carter would come to town in a day or so but not before having some of his hired guns take a crack at him first. It was the way rich men did things and Jess understood it, even though he didn’t agree with it. Jess knew that when Carter finally did come to town, all hell would break loose and he knew that he had to be prepared for it. He knew many of the townsfolk in Black Creek and many of them had helped him in his time of need. He was not about to walk away from them now, any more than he could walk away from Jim and Sara. Besides, it just wasn’t right for one man to run a town like it was his own private domain. People had rights and no one man had the right to take them away. He would take on Carter and everyone else Carter threw at him. He couldn’t help himself; it was just his nature.
Jess walked over to the new general store. As he did, he noticed Newcomb riding out of town. Jess didn’t have to wonder for a minute as to where he was headed but he did wonder to himself where the comment crack of your sorry ass had come from. Maybe he had heard it somewhere and it just got stuck in his head, waiting for the right moment to be blurted out. He shook his head and smiled. What he didn’t know was that Newcomb had already spread the word to some of Carter’s hired guns that were in town. Newcomb knew that before he reached the Carter ‘D’ ranch, every gunslinger and hired gun working for Carter would know that a young man by the name of Jess Williams was in town and that Carter would pay the sum of three thousand dollars to the man who killed him.
The new general store was just about the nicest store he had ever seen. And of course, it was called Carter’s General Store. He noticed that it was quite busy with several people milling around the store. Some were buying and some were just milling about. Jess walked into the store and looked around. He recognized some of the people in the store. He was sure that a few of them recognized him, but if they did, they were afraid to say anything or even acknowledge him. Jess walked right up to the counter and picked up a hammer that was laying on it and pounded the counter three times. “I’d like everyone’s attention for a moment please.”
“Hey, hold on there, Mister,” said the clerk behind the counter, “you can’t come in here and bang on my counter like that. What the hell d’ya think you’re doing?”
“I’m just trying to make an announcement.”
“Well, you can’t do that,” said the clerk.
“Well, ‘cause I say so.”
“Really? Well, I say I can.”
“Yeah, well, who the hell are you anyway? You work for Carter?”
“No, I don’t work for anyone and I wouldn’t work for Carter for any amount of money. Now listen up everyone,” said Jess, turning his back on the clerk as if he didn’t even exist. All of the customers were just standing around in surprise, shocked at what was taking place, but they were paying attention.
“I know some of you people and I know that you used to be loyal customers of Jim and Sara Smythe. I’m here to tell you that Jim not only will match Carter’s price, but his service is much better and you all know that. As for being intimidated by the sheriff or Dick Carter, you don’t have to put up with that anymore. Most of you people used to get credit from Jim back when you couldn’t afford what you needed and he let you pay him back whenever you could. You don’t turn your backs on a man like that. Those are the kind of people who make a town what it is. If anyone bothers you for shopping at Smythe’s General Store, they’ll have to answer directly to me.”
There was an awkward moment of silence as all the customers looked at one another and then back at Jess. Then a strange thing happened. Every single one of them quickly walked straight out of the store as if they really hadn’t wanted to be in there in the first place. As they were walking out, one older lady spoke very quietly as she walked by Jess. “It sure is nice to see you again, young Mr. Williams.” Most of the customers walked into other establishments but three of them went straight across the street to Smythe’s General Store. Jess threw the hammer back down on the counter.