Short Story: An Unkind Sunday – Joseph O’Hara
“You ain’t going to do nothin’, Saturday.” Staines grinned, nuzzling his face into the ample cleavage dark-haired young saloon girl. “You’re outnumbered twelve to one, you try and take me and these men here will gun you down like the old dog you are. Face it old man: you can’t touch me.”
An aging Texas Ranger with a formidable reputation stood facing the Thermopylae’s long counter. Behind him the Cow Boy gang all but filled the ground floor of the saloon, a collection of brooding and rank-smelling rough necks who were all armed to the teeth, foul tempered and desperate. But for all their individual crimes not one of them was worth as much in silver dollars nor as dangerous as their swaggering leader Virgil Staines, a man whose apparent charm was a thin veil for a dark and predatory nature. Staines would never walk out of another saloon, not as a free man anyway, Texas Ranger John W. Saturday was going to make sure of that.
Saturday was a robust man, even by comparison to some of the Cow Boy gang’s most imposing members. Towering above the drunks that were perched and sprawled along the polished mahogany counter, the ranger glowered into the mirror that ran the length of the bar. “THE THERMOPYLAE, SILVER CITY” was printed on the glass in front of him in garish green and gold letters, but he could still make out the reed-thin Staines, whose pointed face reminded Saturday of a runt terrier, but his grin was that of a wolf.
The saloon keeper waddled up to Saturday, the flush faced old man looking at the Texas Ranger over his spectacles with a measured glassy eyed terror. With an even voice he asked: “What’ll be, mister?”
Saturday raised his right hand, a silver dollar held between his index and middle fingers. “Two fingers of whiskey, bar-keep.”
The old man nodded with the solemnity of a holy man and waddled off, processing down the aisle of glass bottles to select Saturday’s whiskey. Saturday, in the meantime, lifted the carpet bag he held in his left hand and placed it on the counter with an audible clank, laid both hands flat on the counter and closed his eyes, waiting for the bar keeper.
One of Staines’ men, a lanky and unkempt Confederate guerrilla turned train robber named Magruder, sidled up behind Saturday and, brushing passed him, stopped by his side. Magruder was grinning to himself and sloshing his beer around in its mug, like he was holding back something that he wanted to say. Saturday knew that much without even opening his eyes, he also knew it was Magruder by the smell; the man’s rankness was well known. It was told that he hadn’t washed since the Civil War and that that his stink was bad enough to kill man woman or beast from ten paces. There was a whore nor a hotel in the West that would willingly take him in for the night.
“What’s in the bag, Saturday? Your Sunday dresses?” The joke clearly delighted Magruder greatly, but when Saturday opened his eyes and looked at Magruder, Saturday’s expression choked off Magruder’s laughter.
“That,” Saturday said,” ain’t none of your concern, Magruder.”
The saloon keeper returned and placed a gleaming tumbler and a dark coloured bottle of amber liquid on the counter in front of Saturday. “Take as many measures as you like, it isn’t often we have law such as yourself around here.”
Saturday nodded his thanks and uncorked the bottle. It was then he heard the shot, like a cannon blast in the enclosed space, and a wine bottle inches shy of the trembling bartender’s head shattered into a plume of crimson liquid and emerald green glass shards. Saturday’s eyes darted to the mirror and he saw Staines was holding a smoking long-barrelled Remington revolver and it took all his resolve not to turn around a blow the outlaws hand away with his Colt SAA.
Staines had dumped the girl on the floor and was standing with his shirt half undone and his revolver held loosely in his hand. His face had that animal snarl that betrayed his true nature.
“You don’t give this law man anything without my say so, old man, you hear?” Staines hissed through gritted teeth. He holstered the revolver, the weapon shushing into the black holster that dangled from his gun rig. “The only ones that get anything free around here are me and the boys, you got me? Nobody keeps anything from us.”
The old man nodded, a dark wet patch growing on his trouser leg. “Yessir, Mister Staines, of course sir.”
Saturday swallowed a measure of whiskey and placed the empty glass back on the counter top. “There’s nothing you’ve done Staines that deserves anyone’s gratitude, the only thing you deserve is a hangin’.”
Staines grumbled, his reflection’s gaze meeting Saturday’s. “No old fat man with a badge will put a noose around the necks of me or mine while I live in Silver City. Us and the people here have ourselves an understanding.”
“Like you and the folks in Skelter’s Fork?” Saturday spat. “Is that what you call it when you shoot up a Sunday meeting? When you butcher the pastor and commit murder and worse on his kid daughter? An agreement?”
It wouldn’t do any good for Saturday to think about finding Janey Stubbs the way he did, nor what these bastards had done to her. She was fourteen years of age and she’d suffered before they’d finally killed her. Saturday willed the rage building in his chest to be choked off or quenched, like a fire being drowned by water, but it wouldn’t. He kept hearing the screams of the Skelter’s Fork massacre survivors and the incoherent sobbing of the girl’s grandmother, as she wept over the child’s broken body, echoing in his brain.
A cold heavy silence fell on the saloon, the chat and carousing of the gamblers and saloon regulars was swiftly cut off as though Saturday had killed all sound with his last remark. None of these men were associated with Staines, and sobriety and temperance had dawned on them like sharp slap to the face. Quickly, quietly, many of them gathered their things and left the saloon; leaving the Cow Boy Gang alone with Captain John W. Saturday.
“Those folks turned on us, Captain Saturday. They turned on us and got what was coming to them.” Staines drank from a glass of wine that sat in front of him and wiped a trickle of crimson liquid that ran from the corner of his mouth with his thumb. “We got what we wanted from them. What they owed us for their contempt. We got it in spades.”
The clamour of voices, the echoes of memories and heartbreak welled up in Saturday till it seemed the past – like a high pitched ringing in his ears – was muffling out everything in the present. The rage was swelling with it, like a monstrous storm cloud growing on the horizon and it was swiftly consuming everything to which he held fast like duty, reason and compassion. He was holding on by the very tips of his fingers, he knew that. Meanwhile Staines, cocksure and ignorant, only pressed his tirade while his assassins and robbers leered like a pack of coyotes awaiting the order to attack.
“You ain’t got the guts to do what needs to be done. You law types hide behind badges and rules and you never do what really needs doing. A real man, worth his grit, would have come in here guns blazing. Shot first and asked questions later, but what did you do Saturday?”
“I’m getting tired of hearing your voice, boy.” Saturday said, his low voice like a rumble of thunder and his eyes clamped tightly shut. Staines went on as though he didn’t hear.
“I said what did you do? You skulked in here, a coward hiding behind a Ranger’s badge.”
“Who said I’m wearing a badge?” Saturday opened his eyes and reached into the pocket of his leather lined vest, withdrawing something silver-coloured that caught the light. It took Staines, and the Cow Boys, a moment to realise what it was: a Texas Marshal badge, slightly dulled and tarnished with wear but no less recognisable.
Magruder, who was still standing beside Saturday, looked wide eyed. Canasta, an almost toothless and leather-skinned mountain man that had ridden with Staines for the past decade, hissed through a gap in his tar-black teeth. Corey, a former Union field surgeon turned gambler, straightened noticeably in his chair and ran a black gloved hand down along the side of his vest where he kept his Colt Lightning. A number of these men had rode with Staines since the end of the war, since the Union Army had ousted him for abuses of rank and acts of sadism committed on prisoners of war and the enemy on the battlefield. Others he’d picked up along the way were a testament to his infamy and celebrity among a certain caste of frontier society – the outlaw. Every single one of them were hardened, forged in the flames of one battle or other and deadlier than a knot of riled up rattlers. Though, in that moment, the room seemed to have turned icy cold with their collective fear. It was only then, too, that Staines missed the girl, she’d disappeared like the local barflies and gamblers. Fury erupted in Staines’ chest, he would not be intimidated by this man or any man.
“Am I supposed to be scared?” Staines cried, his face turning crimson with rage. He balled a fist on the table and stood up. His shirt was still undone, a dented holy medal hung from a chain around his neck. “Have you not been listening, Saturday? These men will put you down if you push me.”
The tempest broke. Saturday turned to face Staines, to face the Cow Boys.
“That’ll be the day.” Saturday growled and then, with the Colt SAA nobody saw him draw from his hip-holster, he fired. The bullet sliced into the side of Staines’ neck, causing the outlaw to fall backwards of his chair so violently that it was as though he’d taken a mortar to the chest. Staines, wounded but alive, barked the order and the Cow Boys hauled iron. It was the last mistake they ever made.