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Charley Sunday's Texas Outfit
By Stephen Lodge
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Stephen Lodge
All rights reserved.
Yes, we shall ga-ther at the ri-ver The beau-ti-ful beau-ti-ful ri-ver Ga-ther with the saints at the ri-ver That flows by the throne o-of God
Listening contentedly as church bells pealed in perfect confidence behind the escalating voices of the Juanita, Texas, Cavalry Missionary Baptist Junior Choir, Charles Abner Sunday just knew this particular Sabbath Day was going to bring something special.
The silver-haired Charley, riding along comfortably with his friend and cohort of many years, Roscoe Baskin—who also lived and worked on Charley's ranch—were on their way into town for weekly, Sunday-morning services.
They were in Charley's old double-seat buckboard—a rickety old bucket of bolts Charley had won in a pool game many years earlier—calmly bouncing along, with Charley driving the two-horse team.
Charley was dressed in his best three-piece pinstriper, topped off with the same "John B" Stetson hat he'd worn for more than a few years—the highlight of his customary Sunday-go-to-meeting garb.
Charley's experienced, raw-boned visage, etched from countless years of exposure to the Texas elements—and on a normal morning adorned with three or four days' growth of pure white stubble—was on this day sparkly and clean shaven.
Charles Abner Sunday was a tall and lanky man, sinewy and able bodied. He was built like many other older men who had worked daylight to dusk on the open range all their lives. Now in his early seventies, Charley had become sensible and sober minded over the years, having put his hard-living ways behind him when he met and married his wife, Willadean, those oh so many years earlier. The couple had lived a good and moral life together. They had four sons, all of them stillborn, and one daughter, who had lived. And even though Willadean had passed on some years ago, Charley still kept his memories of her as close to his heart as if she were still right there beside him.
Roscoe Baskin, Charley's salty, beer-bellied ranch foreman, a cowboy somewhere close to Sunday's age, was snoozing peacefully as they rolled along. He'd thrown on an old, threadbare dress coat and a frayed string tie for the special occasion. But that was as dressy as he'd let himself get—he refused to give up his old, worn, and faded work hat.
As they rode slowly up the main street of Juanita toward the glimmering, white façade of the local house of worship, Charley made his usual mental note: they were passing through a town that dripped heavily with a unique nineteenth-century mode of living—even though it was a way of life that was changing rapidly.
The local barbershop, closed on Sundays. The corner drugstore, also shuttered—except for the fountain where people were allowed to gather for a cup of coffee and a bite to eat on the Lord's Day after services. The Juanita hotel, closed completely ever since a newer caravansary had been constructed several streets over. Even the livery stable, weathered and beaten. It now boasted a single glass-top gasoline pump where a once fine, hand-carved hitching post stood sentry. The fuel was for local farm machinery or the infrequent horseless carriage that might pass through Juanita, plus, there was a large sign nearby advertising a brand-new automobile dealership that would be opening soon in Del Rio, some thirty miles to the west. Even so, every one of these deep-rooted establishments appeared to be falling apart in one way or another.
As they climbed a slight incline, nearing the church on that particular day of rest, they passed yellowing lawns going to weed that were desperately trying to grow alongside once white and now just as gray, paint-peeled houses.
Some other things that caught Charley Sunday's eye were the few ancient wagons and rusting farm equipment that dotted more than several of the withering homesteads.
Charley nudged his friend.
"Better wake up, Roscoe," he said softly. "We're almost there."
The sleepy old wrangler's eyes opened with a blink. Roscoe straightened up. He adjusted his wire-rimmed eyeglasses, pulled at his handlebar mustache, straightened his hat, then stretched.
"Well by golly," he said, yawning and extending his arms. "I see we finally made it. How late are we?" he added.
The buckboard was approaching the church, with its hitching posts almost full to capacity. Charley swung the team into a small space between several tied-off buggies. He pushed the brake with his boot and reined in the horses.
Once stopped, he dropped a tethered lead weight to the ground before he climbed down to tie off the horses.
While he was doing so, one of his team took a real good nip out of the strange horse that was tied next to Charley.
The surprised animal let out a very loud squeal. Then it swung its head around to return the bite.
Caught in the midst of it all, Charley got knocked off balance and had to grab on to a handful of harness to keep from falling down.
"Damn son-of-a-bitch!" he said to the horse.
Inside the house of worship, the good reverend, Caleb Pirtle III, stood silently, clearing his throat, mouthing the words to his upcoming sermon—rehearsing.
Upon hearing Charley's muted profanity through the several open windows, he tried his best to ignore the curse words his congregation had all heard before. Most of the members knew only too well that muffled vulgarities coming from outside always announced Charley Sunday's arrival.
As the junior choir continued on with their singing, several more loud horse whinnies echoed from outside, causing the congregation to again turn their attention away from the celestial chorale.
The good reverend's face flushed once again. It was apparent this had happened many times before.
Outside, once the buckboard and team were resting, Roscoe climbed down and put on the horses' feed bags, adjusting the head straps. When he finally walked over to Charley, both men shrugged at the still bickering animals.
"We're not that late, Roscoe," Charley told his friend. "They're still at the singing part of the service. Soul saving always comes later on."
One of the horses shook in its harness. That made a loud jangling sound that echoed in the early summer air. Charley patted the horse's rear end while at the same time noticing Roscoe was looking rather uneasy.
"Somethin' wrong, Roscoe?" he said.
"I don't know, C.A.," replied the senior cowhand. "I reckon I just wasn't raised on prunes 'n' proverbs like you was. I really don't think bein' a regular churchgoer is truly in my nature."
Charley patted Roscoe on the shoulder, similar to the pat he had given the horse. He smiled softly.
"I expect a lot of folks have second thoughts," he said. "I'm sure the Good Lord will understand if you miss one more Sunday meeting."
Roscoe nodded, looking quite relieved.
Charley threw him a wink. He had been through Roscoe's hemming and hawing about his personal religiosity on more than one Sabbath in the past.
"Thanks-a-plenty, C.A," he said humbly, expressing his gratitude. He was even more than relieved—he figured he'd actually been saved.
"Why don't you run on down to the fountain at the café and get yourself a cup of Jamoka," suggested Charley. "Catch up on the town gossip. Read the newspaper. Pick me up in about an hour, all right?"
Roscoe began removing the feed bags and untying the horses while Charley chuckled to himself.
Roscoe continued to smile gratefully as he moved on around to the driver's side and climbed in.
"Hey, C.A.?" he called back as he reeled in the lead weight, "say a little prayer for me, will ya?"
"Always do, Roscoe." Charley smiled. "Always do."
Charley watched as his friend of many years backed the team expertly, reined them around, then drove off. Charley turned and started walking toward the church.
As he passed a nearby planter, he extracted his ever-present wad of chewing tobacco, depositing the smelly brown lump on the edge of the wooden box that held some drooping shrubbery trying to grow there.
Charley took off his hat and entered the church vestibule as quietly as he could, almost tiptoeing into the sanctuary. From there he moved unhurriedly down the side aisle, his hat in hand. Good thing I remembered to take off the old "John B," he thought. Old Caleb always pitches such a conniption fit if I don't.
By the time the good reverend stepped up to the pulpit, Charley had stopped for a moment, still searching for a seat. As usual, there were none left unoccupied in the rear.
"Mr. Sunday," Pastor Caleb Pirtle snapped from the pulpit, "why don't you try pew number three right up here in front of me? I'm sure Mrs. Livers will scoot over an inch or two for you ... to let you settle in proper-like. Then I can begin my sermon."
Charley nodded awkwardly before he proceeded down to the front, aware that all eyes were on him. He reached the third row and smiled to the older lady who had moved over to make room for him. He sat down, nodding to the pastor.
"You can go ahead now, Caleb," he told the man of the cloth. "And thanks for the nice seat. I couldn't have bought a better one if you were chargin' money. Plus, I plumb forgot to bring my hearin' horn.
The congregation chuckled.
The minister cleared his throat.
"Thank you, too, Charley." He nodded. "Now I'll try and get along with what I have to say ... if you don't mind.
Charley shook his head, smiling. "No sir, Caleb," he replied humbly. "You just go right ahead. That's exactly what I come all this way to hear."
There was a laugh-covering cough from someone in the crowd, then the good reverend began to speak.
Twenty minutes later the buckboard team was tied off in front of the Juanita Pharmacy fountain entrance—the horses' feed bags were in place once again. A sign in the front window stated that although the drugstore was closed for the Sabbath, the fountain was open for business—because, it said, God's children must be able to nourish themselves regardless of the day.
The door to the small fountain area was slightly ajar, and muted voices could be heard coming from within. Other than that, it was a peaceful scene indeed.
While wide-open windows cooled what they could of the inside of the small eating establishment, the fountain's owner stacked some glasses behind the counter beside the register.
With that done, he picked up a newspaper section and continued with his reading. He leaned his nose closer to the comics section that fronted the tabloid, chuckling—then he looked up.
"Hey, Roscoe," he said. "Did you see what them Katzenjammer Kids done today yet?"
Roscoe, sitting several stools down the counter reading his own portion of the paper, looked up.
"Katzenjam ...?" He stared blankly. "Oh, sure," he said, and smiled. "That captain's a hoot, ain't he?"
"Sorry about it being so warm in here, Roscoe," said the owner, apologizing. "I seen one of them newfangled electric ceiling fans advertised just the other day. I'll probably order one as soon as we get wired up for electricity in this part of town," he added, fanning himself with a menu.
"Summer's just around the corner, Jed," said Roscoe, sipping his coffee. "Some folks say it's gonna be a sizzler."
The proprietor was observing something out the front window.
"Wonder who that could be?" he questioned to himself out loud.
Roscoe looked up again. "Who's that?"
"Oh, no one," answered the owner. "Just some horsemen out for a Sunday ride, I suspect. They didn't look familiar to me ... Nobody local, that's for sure."
"Yup," said Roscoe, going back to his newspaper. "Probably just some travelers got lost off the main road. More'n likely they're lookin' to ask someone fer directions ... or a public toilet."
"Then you should ask yourselves this question," the good Reverend Caleb Pirtle droned on. "Have I achieved in this life all the material possessions I want? Or just the necessities I need?"
Some members of the congregation nodded, while others shook their heads.
"Most of you, I suspect, would answer No," he continued. "Well, let me go further and ask you this: Are material possessions what you think our Good Lord put you here on earth to acquire in the first place? Or—"
A very loud explosion echoed through the town of Juanita, Texas, sending shards of glass hurtling out onto dry, dusty Main Street.
In less than moments, a giant swirl of black smoke bellowed from a business establishment directly across the way from the pharmacy where Charley's buckboard was tied. The horses jumped at the sound, though they were not able to pull away from the hitching rail.
Roscoe, followed by the proprietor of the fountain, immediately stepped out onto the boardwalk, eyes gawking, as the smoke began to clear.
"Heavens ta Betsy," said the slack-jawed proprietor. "What in the Sam Hill is going on?"
Both men stood in awe as three masked horsemen galloped out of a side alley, turning onto Main Street.
"Son-of-a-buck," moaned Roscoe. "Someone's done blown the Juanita National Bank."
At the church, which stood on slightly higher ground than the Juanita Pharmacy fountain, the startled congregation was trying to press through the narrow double doors so they might witness what had caused the thunderous blast that had interrupted their peaceful service.
Charley Sunday, normally a very polite individual, put aside his good manners for the moment and managed to wedge his way through the unsettled multitude so he could be first out onto the porch.
He immediately heard galloping horses' hooves moving fast on the road leading out of town. From his vantage looking down on Juanita, he could see three masked riders moving rapidly toward the house of worship.
Several blocks behind the horsemen, Sunday also observed a large, dissipating cloud of black smoke with several small puffs still rolling upward from the center of town.
A number of parishioners, gathering behind Charley, appeared outwardly distressed at the sight of the menacing trio galloping wildly up the road, heading directly for the intersection where they stood gaping from the church portico.
"You're all way too nosy," Charley cautioned. "Better get your be-hinds back inside."
The worshippers, who knew Charles Abner Sunday to be more than straightforward when it came to matters such as the one at hand, ducked back into the vestibule.
Charley continued to keep a narrow eye on the approaching riders. He moved casually to the planter where he found his chaw of tobacco. He blew on it, then tucked it between teeth and cheek. All the while, the sound of the racing horses grew closer and closer.
Slowly and deliberately, Charley Sunday bent down. He raised the cuff of his trousers to reveal a smoothly polished, freshly oiled, .44-caliber, antique Colt revolver—it was a Whitneyville Walker. Also known as the 1847 Army Model—and it was Charley Sunday's gun of choice. He'd been required to use one by the Texas Rangers way back when he became a member of that prestigious law enforcement agency.
He removed the ancient six-shooter from his boot top, checking the cylinder before pulling back the hammer.
When the bank robbers were almost to the junction, one of the outlaws drew his weapon and fired several slugs of burning lead in the direction of the gentleman wearing the gray hat who stood on the church steps. The bullets went way wide of their intended target.
Charley didn't flinch. He unceremoniously spat some tobacco juice, raised the Walker with both hands, sighted in on the approaching bandits, and took aim with the eyes of Argus.
As the riders careened their animals into a slip-sliding turn, speeding past Sunday's position, the old rancher squeezed off several shots.
Two of the riders were hit. Both fell from their saddles in a tangle. The third man's horse stumbled and went down, throwing him into a small ditch.
The two wounded outlaws slid viciously across the sunbaked dirt and into a cement curbside where they glanced off, then hit, several buggy wheels. The momentum shoved the rigs forward, bumping one another and frightening horses until both men were stopped abruptly by a sturdy, cast-iron fireplug.
The terrified horses bucked and jumped, pulling at their yokes. There was the briefest of moments, and then a massive plume of water gushed high into the air. Several more buggy teams whinnied loudly, adding to the chaos, rearing high in their harnesses.
Charley calmly walked on down the church steps, crossing the street to where the first two bandits had been halted.
Excerpted from Charley Sunday's Texas Outfit by Stephen Lodge. Copyright © 2014 Stephen Lodge. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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