Column: The champion of the world
| December 7, 2022 12:00 AM
This is the story — correct that — legend, of a man named Les Webber who ranched and caroused in and around the town of Plains.
When you are leaving Plains headed to Missoula, you might notice on the right a weathered billboard with a narrow protective roof over it in front of a large Town Pump store. The fact that it is still there at all is, I was told, thanks to the intervention of a longtime sheriff’s deputy who convinced the contractor building the new Town Pump to leave it because it was a cultural monument. The sign reads:
“I AM THE CHAMPION OF THE WORLD. I’VE GOT THE BELT, THE INCOME TAX, THE COAT, THE NAME ON THE VETS CLUB STEP AND DOWN TO BROWN’S TO PROVE IT.”
On the bottom, in red, is the name, LES WEBBER. To the left of the name is “AGE, 29 AND HOLDING,” to the right, “WAIST 34,” and below the name five dice showing 6-1-6-1-6.
There’s a story, there, I thought, so I called around and found some people who knew Les, and there is a story, and here it is, or what I could find out about it. Actually, I found out a lot more of it than I have written because about half of what I was told began, “I’ll tell you a story but please don’t print it.” In a word, Les was a rascal, a well-loved rascal.
Les Webber loved to play dice, 4-5-6 was his game and he was good at it. He won and lost thousands, but mostly won. “He was faster than he was lucky,” said Johnny Holland. “You had to watch his hands!” said Randy Garrison. Which meant that Les would snatch up his dice and declare his win before the other players could count dice. Johnny Holland talked about a newcomer to Todd Sanders’ Mint Bar in Plains who was invited to play a game. “I don’t know how,” he said, and Les replied, “We will teach you, we won’t cheat you, we’ll just beat you.” And did, all three.
Les drove an old Jeep pickup held together with baling wire so Kim McNeill told me. When it was parked in front of the Mint it was an advertisement for free beers on Les. Or maybe not, because sometimes he would head out to the men’s room to “go wet” and keep on going out the back door without paying the tab. The Jeep was his pride and joy, battered as it was, and was stolen a couple of times. Once it was discovered behind the show window of the local new car dealership, another time being driven into the line-up of the demolition derby at the Sanders County Fair, causing Les to rescue it.
He could close down the Mint Bar at 2 a.m. and show up at a ranch with his cattle truck at six that morning sober and ready to load cattle for the sale yard in Missoula. In the wintertime he would pick up a load of Presto Logs for a back-haul to Plains and distribute them to folks who needed to stay warm but had a hard time affording it, This from Brand Inspector Bill Nolen.
There are some strange claims on the sign which I can now interpret: “Age 29 and holding.” Les always claimed to be 29 years old but some people wanted the truth. A young Johnny Holland asked him how old Les’ mother was when she had him, figuring he could back-fill the details. Les laughed and laughed, and then some more, but he just couldn’t say.
Waist 34. Which it obviously wasn’t. Les bought his Levi’s at Eddie Mulick’s bar (and store) in a wide spot on the road called Perma (“Hungry? Thirsty? Gotta go? Perma Merc one mile” the sign used to read.) He always cut off the leather label on the right side that had the size on it.
Kim McNeill called around to get information for me, for which I am grateful. “The problem,” Kim said, “is that most of the people I called were dead, and so were the rest of them.”
The sign was erected by Jim Brown and other friends of Les. It was illuminated for as long as the electric bill was paid. Now it’s dark…but still there.
Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.