There were really only two places to be at noon on Sunday in Albion: in church if you so feared God that you believed your absence would lead to eternal damnation or in the saloon if you already knew you’d be drinking whiskey with the devil before your dead body was cold. The church bells rang every hour on the hour on Sunday. The only exception was the noon hour when it rang exactly five minutes after noon. A part of the preacher’s clever ploy to squeeze five extra minutes of sermon and worship from his congregation. Nobody was the wiser.
Sunday nights were the quietest nights in the saloon. Sometimes there wasn’t anybody in there on Sunday night except for the preacher himself – who took advantage of this knowledge – and the bartender. That’s due almost entirely to the fact that those lawless cowboys, bandits and brigands who didn’t go to church had already gotten drunk, brawled and passed out no later than five o’clock in the afternoon.
“So he says to me, he says, ‘Jack, you ain’t got the damnable shot and you know it.’ Course I’s lookin’ at his ugly mug down my sights and he’s got a hunk a chaw in his cheek and he got his six pointed right back at me. And I yell at ‘eem, I says, ‘You go head and see just how square I gotcha.’ And so he does. I seen ‘eem spit some chaw and just as he cocks his hammer, I dropped ‘eem. Time his spit hit the ground, he was rollin’ around and clutchin’ his leg screamin’ and hollerin’, ‘Damnit, Jack you shot me!’ And I says to ‘eem, I says, ‘Billy, you’re about as good a fighter as you are a smart sonuvabitch.’”
The table in the saloon surrounding
Diamondfield Jack heaved in one big fit of laughter. “Next thing I know,” says
Jack, “he’s laid up in one a them rooms with one a them whores. Poor girl can’t
even make no money, him sittin’ up in her bed like a lump on a log. Only
bedpost queen in there’s that damn boy Billy.”
A chair screeched across the
pine floor like a note on an out of tune harmonica. From it, a large man stood
up, hands twitching at his sides, eyes narrowed, peering straight at
Diamondfield Jack. “You lying, good-for-nothing bastard!” he spat at Jack.
The smile on Jack’s face crept away as he spoke without looking at the man, “Ain’t no lie. You wasn’t there, Clyde.” He took a sip of his bourbon and finally looked up at Clyde who was standing two tables away, “You stay outta this or watch your goddamn mouth.” His voice was smooth and cool, and he nodded at Clyde as he spoke, warning more than irritated or threatening. Diamondfield turned away again to his drink.
“Horseshit, Jack! Everyone in here knows,” he waddled in his saddle-ridden saunter towards Diamondfield still sitting in his chair and looked down at him. More composed, he finished, “You ain’t ne’er told a story true in your life.” By now the entire saloon was hushed. He was right. Jack had gotten his nickname ‘Diamondfield’ because all he ever talked about was how he was going to strike it rich in the diamond fields a few days ride along the river. He said he’d seen the diamond so big it would have added extra weight to a cattle scale and all he was waiting for was to clear it out a little, give the other prospectors a chance before he made his killing. And yet, here he was in Podunk, Nowhere in the middle of the desert working for the cattle company as an enforcer to keep the sheep off the cattle grazing land.
“And you know this concerns me. Them’s my sheep he was lookin’ after out there. I lost half the flock ‘cause a you,” Clyde continued. Here and there was the sound of boots shuffling on pine floors followed by the clinking spin and whir of a spur, a hock phtoo of tobacco spit, coughs and drunk groans, but all eyes were fixed on Diamondfield and Clyde. All that were still awake, even if there were two or three Clydes and Diamondfields filling their vision.
Diamondfield Jack took the rest of his bourbon straight up in one gulp and slammed the empty glass with a clank on the table. He pushed himself up from the table with his arms and slid his own chair out behind him. It fell on its back and Diamondfield wobbled a bit as he turned to meet the man’s stare with his own. Resting his hand on the .45 in his holster on his right hip, he said with an arrogance, “I never lie, my six as my witness, ole Clydesdale. You can ask it if you’d like.” Even with some stifled chuckles, especially from his own table, Diamondfield didn’t crack a smile.
“Son, you must be liquored outta your gourd. I tell you what, we can settle this right now, if’n y’ant to. We can do it here or we can take it outside. Don’t make no matter to me.”
Diamondfield stared at him for a minute, his liquefied brain processing everything, trying to keep up. The barkeep interjected, “Won’t be no fighting here, fellas. You’re gonna do this, you take it outside. Not in this establishment.” Neither one of them paid him any attention.
Finally, Diamondfield broke the silence, “Honest, Clydesdale, I ain’t got a bone to pick with you. I’s just pullin’ your reins. We’re as square as an outhouse far as I’m concerned.”
Clyde gritted his teeth. It pissed him off even more. He knew what Diamondfield was doing, that he had just defused the situation so that anything he did in retaliation would likely have him hanging from a noose on the gallows in front of the entire town and yet, he was insulted. Sitting down and letting him get away with his insults would make Clyde look like… less of a man.
Clyde contemplated it all in his head. He reasoned that two drinks was just the right amount. He was a better judge after a couple drinks than he was straight sober. He could see better, shoot better, and clearly Diamondfield was in no condition to put a bullet in a sleeping cow, much less draw and pull on a real, live shooting man. If it went down now, Clyde had the drop on Diamondfield. The idea of swinging from the gallows completely escaped Clyde at that moment.
Clyde saw his opportunity and reached for his pistol. His partner from the table grabbed his arm just in time and stepped halfway in front of Clyde grabbing his shoulder with the other hand, “Come on cowboy, we gotta finish our game of spades.”
Clyde exhaled and looked at his partner, “Where were we? My deal?” They both turned and walked toward their table.
“No, your play.” his partner reminded him. He tiptoed and whispered into Clyde’s ear, “Ain’t worth it, ole boy. Not here, not now. You’ll have your day. So will he like every that dog needs puttin’ down.”
Clyde grabbed his chair by the back and drug it in a low screech across the floor. He tossed it back in front of the table he sat at before with a loud thud above the din. Diamondfield stood there, wobbling with his eyes fixed in a gaze through the tops of his brows at Clyde. The boys at the table went back to playing their card game and Diamondfield turned back to his. All of them were still sitting, looking up at him. He shot a reassuring smile to the men at his table that he was in control. In case any of them were worried. They weren’t.
Back at the Hearts game, a queen of spades lay on top of three other lesser cards and it took Clyde a moment to pick his play. He laid down the King of Diamonds to win the pile. One of the guns at Clyde’s table, the lean fellow with bushy brows and an unshaven face chimed in, “Would you fellas look at that. The king of diamonds killed the bedpost queen!” It was Clyde’s table that erupted in laughter. Except Clyde and his straight-laced mouth only visible from the toothpick sticking out of it.
“You got something to say me, boy?!” Jack queried to the lean fellow.
“Your bone ain’t with him Diamondfield Jack,” Clyde spat his name like a curse,“And I’m sayin’ it. Seems anytime somebody gets shot around here, somehow you’re implicated. Now I don’t find that a coincidence. Even if you was married to the bitch. Pardon me, the whore. That’s more acc'rate.”
It fell silent again in the saloon. Diamondfield Jack sat in his chair and called behind him to the bartender, “Give me another dead cowboy,” which was slang for beer.
Immediately he stood up and faced Clyde. Clyde watched his hands intently, expecting a draw. Everybody else in the bar cleared a way between and behind them for gunfire. Soon, Clyde’s partner creaked out of his chair. Before he was fully standing, Clyde put his hand out to stop him. “Not this time old boy. Today is this dog’s day.” His partner sat back down with the stiff quietness of a mother creeping away from a baby’s crib. “What’s the time?” Clyde asked in general, keeping his eyes on Jack.
“’Bout one minute to noon,” the lean, young fellow said.
“Tell you what, Jack. You don’t have to draw first, if you're afeard of the gallows. We both know first draw is getting the noose if he don't get the bullet. Soon as that bell tolls, we both draw.”
“Sounds about right,” Jack agreed.
“Wait! If’n you’re gonna do it here, at least let me move my oak barrel. Don’t need no damn holes in it or it ain’t no good,” the bartender pleaded as he made his way toward the barrel which sat next to the old grandfather style clock behind Clyde.
“I’d hurry if I’s you. I ain’t looking to put a hole in you too,” Jack cawed.
The bartender spun the barrel on its bottom rim and guided it toward the bar. “All right. Do your business. But I didn’t condone any of this.”
Several moments passed in silence, each waiting for the other to make a move, waiting for the clock behind Clyde to ring its bells. Not even so much as a cough or a spit of tobacco could be heard. The silence made way to restlessness and whispers. The intensity of the situation had thrown their sense of time off because what seemed like at least three minutes had passed and the clock bell still hadn’t rung.
“Your clock broke?” Clyde asked.
“Clock works just fine last I checked. You heard the eleven o’clock toll,” the bartender reassured. “Might be your sense of time is broke.” The bartender bared his teeth with a large grin that nobody saw.
“Well I’ll be a sonuvabitch! It is broke!” one of the voices from the saloon called out as he examined the clock. The pendulum and the second hand were completely still. He tapped the glass to make sure it wasn’t working, “Yep. Not movin’ ‘t’all. Still as a stump.”
Others nearby crept over to check it out for themselves. One of them nodded at the bartender in agreeance.
“Welp, looks like we ain’t havin’ us a good ole fashioned shoot up in here today, boys.” The grin stayed on the bartender’s face.
“Looks like today’s your lucky day, Clyde.” Diamondfield laughed as he turned and grabbed the nearest drink from his table.
“Lucky like hell. I’da put you down, Jack.” Clyde relaxed and walked toward the clock. Diamondfield followed him. They stood there, neither looking at the other, examining the clock and both silently thanking God for this minor miracle. “Don’t think this is over just ‘cause you got past today.” Clyde’s breath fogged up the clock glass. He moved the toothpick around in his mouth nervously. “How’s about we both go home the rest of the day, let these people drink and play in peace. Only right after all.”
Clyde could see Jack’s wide eyes in the glass staring intently into the clock, searching, either for answers or courage to speak. Or both. Clyde turned to face him and before he could ask again, Jack bumbled, “Y-yeah. Sounds about right.”
They both turned and walked out of the saloon together as it returned to its normal Sunday bustle of drinking and cards.
One of the patrons walked over to the bartender, “Must be some kinda miracle. What are the odds the clock would stop just then?” he asked him.
“Oh, I’d say the odds were pretty damn good once I moved that barrel. Them floorboards have been warped and I ain’t got ‘em replaced yet. They stick up just enough to keep the clock from being level. And when it’s not level, it don’t work right. That barrel is what keeps it level and ticking. ”
“You clever sonuvabitch. Hell, if you didn’t own the place I’d buy you a drink.” He turned toward the rest of the saloon and shouted, “Hey, everybody hear that? Clock only works on account of the barrel keeping the clock level. He moved the damned barrel so the clock wouldn’t work. That’s a sneaky trick, but we ain’t mad atcha. Whole place was about to shit a brick!” The saloon regained its joviality. A few of the patrons even came up to the bartender and shook his hand or patted him on the back. The bartender’s grin got wider and wider with every one.
Just then, church was letting out. That meant it was time for 12:05 church bells.
Outside, a Bang.
The whole rest of the town that was just letting out of church had seen the whole thing go down in broad daylight. The women clutched and shielded their crying children as they stared in horror and disgust. The men stood by, jaws scraping shocked expressions into the dirt.
“You all saw it, he drew first. Damnit, Clyde! You shot me!” Jack hollered at Clyde’s still body crumpled on the ground. Jack rolled around, clutching his stomach, blowing air and grunting on account of the .44 slug that had punched him in the gut. Once his stomach was patched up, Jack was going to hang from the gallows pole. No two ways about it.