The Del Rio Crossing
by Gary Clifton
The Brannigan Stories
Table of Contents
The huge Newfoundland growled softly and sprang to his feet, staring in full battle mode to the south, toward Uvalde.
“Somebody comin’ in a big hurry, Charlie.” Brannigan felt for, but did not pick up the Henry .44 rifle leaned against the porch rail. “Sit, Charlie. Fast as he’s floggin’ that horse, he’ll get here soon enough.”
The big black dog resumed his prone position, his duties as burglar alarm fulfilled for the time being. If his master needed help after the rider arrived, Charlie would quickly take one hundred forty pounds of whatever action necessary.
“Hope he sees the gate’s closed, Charlie. He hits it at that speed, he’ll kill himself and the horse. Then we’re gonna need a new gate.”
Henry Paul Brannigan, fifteen years a Texas Ranger, had been sitting on the front porch of his ranch eight miles north of Uvalde, Texas, smoking his pipe and sipping at a mug of coffee. He was dreaming of his wife’s face and enjoying a slightly cooler early morning breeze drifting in on the normally stifling, south Texas August heat. A bible lay open in his lap. The summer of 1890 had been a scorcher.
Elizabeth Brannigan had died a year earlier of lingering cancer. Sitting, smoking, reading the good book had become his main leisure time activities after her death.
“Charlie, this fella either has a runaway horse or we may have some business to attend to.” The dog looked up, eyes crowded with sleep, then dropped his head between outstretched paws the size of a man’s foot.
Brannigan stood, tossed the bible on his rocker, knocked the pipe out on the railing, and started down the steps. He reached back and grabbed the Henry. Charlie snapped to life and gingerly followed across the front yard behind him.
As both rider and Brannigan approached the gate, he recognized the rider. “Square Deal, you’d best try reining that critter in,” he shouted.
The frail old man already yanking on the reins, managed to halt the exhausted, lathered bay mare just short of the gate.
Brannigan, a muscular, slender, tanned forty-five, was a laconic man, used to loneliness and not given to becoming easily excited. The shout at Square Deal was the first time he had raised his voice in months.
“Somebody chasin’ you, Square Deal?” The Henry in one hand, Brannigan swung the gate open to allow horse and rider in. Square Deal slid down, more falling than dismounting, so distraught, he was unable to spit out his words.
“Mother of God, Ranger! Murder. God-awful slaughter. Sheriff Flynn says you gotta come right now.”
Brannigan led Square Deal’s horse to a water tank beside the ranch house. “Don’t let her drink until she flounders.” He hesitated while the used-up horse slurped up water and Square Deal recovered his ability to speak.
Square Deal dipped his face in the tank beside his horse and drank heavily.
“Murder? Where, who, how?”
He figured a cowboy had gotten drunk in Uvalde, and somehow violence had erupted. Such a shooting should be the jurisdiction of the city marshal and the county sheriff. The Rangers would only be called under unusual circumstances.
Square Deal gasped. “At the McClain Ranch on the Del Rio Road... up near the bridge.” He pointed to the northwest. “Damned Mexican done murdered Miss Clara, her husband Abraham and, my God, the baby.” Miss Clara was nekked and Doc Williams says she was... uh...”
Square Deal, a wizened old hand with a full, white mustache, and a reputation for dealing from the bottom of a poker deck, nodded and stared at his boots. “Yessir.”
Abraham McClain was the nephew of the richest man in the territory, Cletus McClain, an attorney in Uvalde with extensive land holdings in the area, including the ranch where his nephew and family had apparently been murdered. Brannigan had always found Cletus McClain a difficult man not to dislike, but his calm demeanor prevented any negative reaction on his stolid poker face.
“What make you so sure a Mexican did it?” He moved toward the stable. “Pull that mare away from the water, Square Deal, or you’ll be afoot.”
“Doc Hardy and Sheriff Flynn sayin’ that Mexican the McClain’s had workin’ out there done it. My good God, Ranger, it’s the worst thing I ever seen.”
Brannigan realized why he’d been called to the scene. Years of experience told him if the local law already had a suspect, they only wanted him to respond to the scene because their suspect had fled. Brannigan’s reputation for tracking was well-earned. While he gave Square Deal’s mare a chance to recuperate somewhat, he saddled his best black gelding.
Brannigan knew the Hispanic suspect, the same as he did every other resident within a hundred miles. Juan Silva had drifted into the area about the time Elizabeth had died and had worked at several ranches around the area. He’d worked for the McClain family off and on for the last six months.
Silva was not the usual type who filtered in from the Mexican border, sixty miles away. His English was very good and Brannigan, an expert in gauging the spunk in a man, had seen this one was no hungry peasant. Brannigan had also noticed that Silva did not carry a sidearm, unlike every other man in the territory.
Brannigan’s instinct suggested Silva was probably an educated military veteran, possibly a deserter from the Mexican Army. He wore moccasins instead of western boots, suggesting to the veteran officer he might be at least part Pima Indian. If so, he could run fifty miles.
A month earlier, Brannigan had driven the year’s crop of calves to the railhead at Uvalde, a task requiring two additional hands. When he put out the word of cash for a day’s saddle work, Silva had been first to show up. Brannigan noticed he rode well, seemed to know the art of herding skittish calves, said very little, and was obviously not just another cow puncher.
Brannigan stepped back inside his cabin, retrieved a full box of .44 caliber cartridges, a slab of bacon, and two heavy canteens of water, then stuffed them in a partial sack of corn which he hung on his saddle horn. With Charlie, the Newfoundland giant, trotting along beside, he started toward the McClain place, Square Deal bringing up the rear.
* * *
A cluster of horses and carriages were jumble parked around the McClain place. Inside, he found Sheriff Virgil Flynn, Doctor John Hardy, and Cletus McClain gathered in a parlor, all showing dangerously angry faces.
Flynn spoke first. “Brannigan, that damned murderin’ Mexican slaughtered the whole family and he’s runnin’ for the border. We need your jurisdiction to chase him out of our territory.”
“Our territory, McClain? I’m believing Mexico had it first,” Brannigan said. “You sure he’s running?”
“On foot,” Flynn answered. “Gotta Colt .44 stuffed in his waistband. Neighbor next to the west saw him trotting as if nothing had happened down the Del Rio trail toward Mexico.” He gestured.
Cletus McClain, a man who could resist talking only briefly, spat. “Ranger, you get after that murdering animal Silva and we’ll see he hangs up in Uvalde, if he lives that long.” Fat and fifty, McClain wore a permanent expression of scorn as he peered over silver half-glasses. Bald about halfway to the top of his head, long stringy, graying hair hung below his rear neck line like a rotten vineyard.
Brannigan held his tongue and asked softly, “How are you so sure Silva is your man?”
Flynn motioned Brannigan into an adjacent bedroom. Doc Hardy and Cletus McClain followed. The causal eye would have concluded a hog had been butchered except for the three bloody sheets tossed over mounds on the floor. The oval rug was sticky with blood, the odor of early decay of raw, human flesh already overpowering in the warm air.
Brannigan, who would rather have taken the Doc’s word of the victims’ conditions, dutifully raised each sheet to see all three. Abraham’s head was partially missing in the mush of gore on the floor. The baby, a little girl of about three had been beheaded. Clara, naked as Square Deal had said, appeared to have been strangled.
Brannigan motioned the group back into the parlor. “Killed the baby girl, figuring she was old enough to identify him.”
“Murdering Mexican swine,” McClain formed the words like he was spitting out rotten food.
“Let’s not be so quick to convict, McClain. Silva might have a sound alibi.” He stared McClain down.
“Silva was the only one here. It had to be him,” McClain snapped. Flynn and Doc Hardy nodded in agreement.
Hardy added, “Had to be the Mexican, Ranger. Needs hangin’ soon as we bring him in.”
“We bring him in?” Brannigan asked. He stared Hardy, Flynn, and McClain down. “I’ll have no further talk about lynching.”
“Brannigan, bring me the murderer of my loved ones, and I’ll buy a double round for the house at the Acme... after we kill him.”
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Gary Clifton