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The Del Rio Crossing

by Gary Clifton

Part 1 appears
in this issue.


Juan Silva had been sleeping in a barn loft. Brannnigan rummaged around in his gear left behind and gave Charlie a good nose-load. “Find him, boy.”

Brannigan knew from hard experience that Charlie would pursue the fugitive through the gates of hell. He found no trace of blood on any garments left behind. If Silva was his man, the clothes he was wearing would be bathed in blood.

The murder scene was only two miles from the bridge across the Nueces River. In twenty minutes, Brannigan cantered his horse over the bridge, forty miles from Del Rio. Charlie trotted along in front, his broad nose inches off the ground.

Even if he acquired a horse, Silva would have great difficulty later in total darkness navigating the many draws and rocky depressions in the rolling landscape on the rough, forty-mile trail between the Nueces Bridge and the ferry over the Rio Grande between Del Rio, Texas and Piedras Negras, Mexico. Charlie, however, with the magnificent instinct reserved for dogs, could navigate a bit better. Brannigan hoped to gain distance in the dark hours.

He encountered a rancher coming toward him. The man informed him he’d met Silva on the road and, when he’d attempted a greeting, Silva had pulled the .44 from his waistband and warned him away. Brannigan made a mental note to see if the McClain farm had a .44 revolver on the premises before the murders.

After several hours, his horse trotting steadily, the sky grew dark and the sticky night humidity more uncomfortable. Brannigan knew the rough, sandy trail soil would reflect enough starlight to illuminate the bushy edges of the trail.

Charlie’s black form was slightly discernible against the light-colored ground as he trotted in front of Brannigan. Charlie would also double as point, sensing and sniffing out Silva in case he lay in the gap somewhere ahead, thinking ambush.

But, somehow, Brannigan doubted Silva would attempt to bushwhack anyone following. Mexico was his only chance, and delaying by taking a shot at any pursuers would be stupid, something Silva seemed not to be.

As a hint of gray touched the eastern horizon, Brannigan estimated they’d managed twenty miles in the darkness. Del Rio and the ferry were still another twenty miles away. He stopped briefly at a small spring, slid a nose bag of corn on his horse, and fed Charlie a generous portion of bacon.

Animals fed and watered, he remounted with Charlie again leading at a trot. That the horse had twenty miles left was a gamble. As he recalled, the Del Rio Ferry crossed only around midday and evening. Silva was not free just yet.

By late afternoon, the gelding dripping lather and his stride noticeably weakening, Brannigan saw the first shanty of the cluster of such structures called Del Rio. Well past noon, he’d missed Silva. He’d make a call on the local sheriff to gauge his relations with the Rurales across the river and probably chance crossing on the evening ferry into Mexico.

Then the unexpected: as the distance narrowed, leaning on the ferry gate was the unmistakable figure of Juan Silva. Somehow, traveling on foot, he’d also missed the midday crossing. Surprisingly, the river was up in the normally dry period of August, preventing the fugitive from wading or swimming across.

Charlie, a tracker and night watchman, was basically a big friendly pup. Nose to the ground, he hurried ahead of Brannigan toward Silva. Silva drew the big .44 from his waistband, as Brannigan coaxed the last strength from his totally spent mount.

“Shoot at the dog, Juan, and you’re a dead man.” Brannigan, had drawn close enough that no raised voice was necessary. “You met Charlie when you helped with calves last month. He’s aggressive only if you come ’round after dark.”

Silva held the pistol, pointed up, but made no attempt to stuff it back in his waistband. “Ranger, I found the McClains butchered and ran for the border. I knew they’d lay the blame on me.”

“Where did you get the .44?”

“Had it in my gear where I was sleeping in the barn loft.”

“Did you kill them, Juan?” Brannigan dismounted and drew his Henry from the saddle scabbard. “I’m of a mind you aren’t that stupid. Or a killer.” He was not surprised that Silva’s clothing was coated with trail dust, but free of any bloodstains.

Silva then slid the .44 back into his waistband. “On my sacred oath, Ranger, I’ve killed no man. Or woman or child.”

“Sacred oath?”

“Ranger, I’m Father Hector Lopez Juan Silva, a priest of the Jesuit Order. On the honor of the breast of the Virgin, I cannot take another’s life.”

Brannigan walked to arm’s length and reached out for the .44. Silva handed it over.

“I can check that story out.”

“On my mother’s eyes, Ranger, I am an ordained cleric.”

“Father, why punch cattle in Uvalde?”

“Because I fell in love with a young lady in my flock south of Piedras Negras, Ranger. It’s not a mortal sin, but it is against the law of both the country of Mexico and the Jesuit Order. I was forced to leave.”

“I’ll be damned... er, sorry, Father.” Brannigan’s gut told him the story was true, but he also knew he’d been fooled before. Caution was in order.

Silva waved a hand dismissively at the language.

Brannigan studied the slender, frightened young man and made a decision.

“Father, if your faith can tolerate eating in a cantina, we can find some frijoles and fajitas before we head back.”

“They’ll hang me, Ranger.”

“Maybe not, Father. But I’m obligated to take you in. I’ve learned not to be surprised at much of anything but also to trust my instincts. We eat, then back to Uvalde. I have no choice, son.”

Brannigan found the local livery stable, where he paid hard cash to trade his spent animal for a fresh mount, bought a roan gelding and saddle for Silva, and found the local cantina.

* * *

The food was adequate, the conversation limited, and by Friday night sunset, they were on the way back to Uvalde. Charlie trotted along ahead, now taking an occasional opportunity to chase a jackrabbit into the buck brush. Juan Silva, an outstanding horseman, brought up the rear.

On the long ride back, Father Silva told Brannigan a long and sad tale. Brannigan absorbed the story stoically as always but, inside, hot anger was boiling.

At daybreak, Brannigan called a halt and made camp under a clump of mesquite trees. “Father, it’s no more than twenty miles further. We stop, rest us and the horses, have a little bacon, and finish the trip in the dark to avoid as much sun as we can.”

“You’re not afraid if you go to sleep, Marshal, I’ll cave in your head with a rock and run for Mexico?”

“Nope.” Brannigan got a small fire started in minutes the tantalizing smell of frying bacon brought Charlie close, licking his lips. The entire group dozed in the limited shade for several hours.

In late afternoon, the little caravan got underway. In three hours, the night sky was black.

After a long ride, cloaked in Sunday morning pre-dawn, they rode down the dusty main street of Uvalde.

As Brannigan had expected, the glow in the windows of the Acme Saloon meant the Saturday night poker game was still in progress at four o’clock in the morning.

They tied their horses to the front rail, and Charlie, pre-empting the mission, slithered beneath the swinging saloon doors.

Cletus McClain, Wild Bill Hickok style, sat, back against the wall, surrounded by five additional players, including Doc Hardy and Sheriff Flynn.

“You fellers gonna have a tough time stayin’ awake in church here in a couple hours.” Brannigan strode over to the table.

No one answered, then Sheriff Flynn noticed Juan Silva’s slight form standing behind Brannigan’s big frame.

Flynn blurted as he started to his feet, “Damned good work, Ranger. We can hang him tomorrow.”

“Sit, Flynn. And the rest of you keep your seats. I have here with me, voluntarily, Father Hector Lopez Juan Silva.”

McClain, face in the usual sneer, said, “We ain’t likin’ no papists any better than we do Mexicans, Ranger. Whut the hell you tryin’ to pull here?

Brannigan eyed McClain with cold eyes of death, but arrogance prevented the lawyer from comprehending the danger. “I ask the questions, boys. Want to tell you a little story the Father told me on the ride back.”

McClain again: “Don’t believe nothing no Mexican says.”

Brannigan ignored the comment. “Seems Father Juan had worked for Doc Hardy here before he was farmed out to Abraham McClain’s place. Told me an interesting tale. Said six, seven month ago, Hardy sent him up to a ranch he’d rented to a young couple, to bury some bodies. Husband had been smashed in the head with an axe, the young wife raped and strangled.”

Sheriff Flynn broke in: “I remember that case. Seems we figured a passing drifter done it. Never did find no bodies, though.”

Brannigan scratched an ear. “Drifter, that’s what Hardy told Silva. Anyone ever see a drifter who just slaughtered two folks take time to hide and bury the bodies instead of cuttin’ a trail outta the territory?”

Doc Hardy stammered, “It’s the Lord’s truth.”

Brannigan made eye contact around the table. “Hold your tongues.”

Flynn and McClain found reason to study their fingernails.

Hardy roared, “You got no proof of any of that!”

“Well, Doctor, we just examined your buggy over at the livery, the same one you told Juan Silva to haul those bodies out on the range and bury them. It’s blood all right; I can see it even by lantern light. I’m not wanting to hear any damned lie about blood from going hunting. You’ve never hunted in your life. We search your house, reckon we’ll find a pile of blood-stained clothes.”

Hardy’s sneer faded. “Lying Mexican.”

“Father Silva also says that same buggy was parked at the Abraham place hitch rail midday yesterday and he actually heard a sound he took to be the baby playing.” Brannigan pulled handcuffs from his rear waist. “Stand up John Hardy, you’re under arrest. My God, man, rape and murder are unspeakable, but murdering the baby? There’s gotta be a special seat in Hell for you.”

Hardy, like a lot of town men, carried only a little two-shot .44 Derringer which he’d carefully palmed during the conversation. But, as he raised it toward Brannigan, he mistimed pulling back the single-action hammer and shot a splintery hole in the table.

Brannigan well knew he probably could lunge across the table and wrest the little gun away but maybe take a round in his belly in the process. With practiced skill of a man who’d had to use his Colt before, he drew and put a .44 round in Doc Hardy’s corpulent chest. Hardy slumped forward, still in his chair, dead on the table-top amidst scattered cards, poker chips, and a spreading circle of crimson.

The remaining card players froze in place, uninjured.

Brannigan smiled wanly and pointed his .44 at McClain. “Dig around in your stash there, McClain, and make sure you’ve got the price of two rounds of drinks for the house like you promised after ‘we’ caught the murderer of your family members... and after ‘we’ killed him.”

Copyright © 2016 by Gary Clifton

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