Hill Country Showdown
by Gary Clifton
The night sky was totally black. Brannigan dismounted several times to closely examine the bandits’ tracks, knowing if they didn’t stop soon, Charlie was the only hope. Then, on a small hill a half-mile distant, he saw the flicker of fire.
He tied the mare to a mesquite tree with the makeshift reins and hurried forward on foot. The horse would snack on mesquite brush and eventually break free. With an animal’s acute sense of direction, she would find her way back to San Antonio or Frog Knot. Walking as quietly as possible, he swore that up ahead, somebody was going to die, and soon.
“Quiet, Charlie,” he shushed. “They hear us, they might hurt the girl.”
Miss Monroe lay on a blanket, her hands tied to a mesquite scrub. She was fully clothed, much to Brannigan’s relief. The leader and the cowboy were slumped on blankets next to the small fire. The sticky night temperature did not require added heat. The fire served as a cooking source and light for an angry hunter.
As he heard the leader speak and saw his sack-free face illuminated by the fire, Brannigan suddenly recalled the man’s name: William Dupree, a sorry, no-good. He still couldn’t place the cowboy, whom he knew only as Smith.
As Brannigan crept closer, in the distance behind him, the mare, possibly frightened by a coyote, nickered, then whinnied at volume. Dupree and the cowboy sprang to their feet. Brannigan, incapable of shooting down a man without a call, stepped into the circle of firelight.
Leveling the Henry, he said quietly, “Boys, I believe you said to me back on the trail, ‘Try for a gun and you’re a dead man’.” DuPree, his swarthy face thick with beard stubble, froze, then grabbed at the .44 on his hip — Brannigan’s .44.
Cowboy Smith stepped away from DuPree and with the practiced hand of a gunfighter, yanked at his Colt. A round from the Henry into his belly blew him into the fire, his bulk extinguishing the flame to total darkness. Brannigan had shot at men during the Civil War, but he’d never killed a man at close range. He felt no remorse.
Brannigan quickly sprang several steps sideways. Dupree, fired two rounds from the Colt at the spot where Brannigan had been seconds earlier. Brannigan used the brief flashes of light from the pistol to return a single round from his Henry.
“Ow, damn!” Dupree screamed.
But the sound of boots running told Brannigan the outlaw was still upright. Dupree fired another round, coming nowhere close to Brannigan.
“I know you, boy. You’re that stupid driver. I shoulda let the air outta you back there, same as that heathen redskin posin’ as a preacher. Damn you, you jes’ killed Harvey Smith, the Sonora Kid. Nobody beats ol’ Harve to the draw.”
The comment told Brannigan, Harvey Smith was an imported gun-hand and certainly no cowboy. To deny DuPree any target, Brannigan wisely made no reply.
“Boy, I got this girl. I’m gonna hold her in front of me while I get us both on a horse. You interfere and I’ll blow her head off.”
Walking softly, Brannigan worked his way toward the sound of DuPree’s voice, mindful that firing one of his three remaining rounds would endanger Miss Monroe. Then the sound of his boot brushing a stone drew another wild shot from DuPree. In the brief flash of light of the gunshot, Brannigan realized he was within six feet of the husky man in the pitch black.
He lunged and managed to drive the killer off his feet, losing his Henry in the process. Charlie, not needing light to act, piled into the man. Between a hundred pounds of angry dog, a gunshot wound, and Brannigan, DuPree was quickly on the losing end.
DuPree was big, but saloon soft. He smelled like a pigpen. Brannigan got a hand on the Colt and a desperate struggle for life followed. DuPree tried to turn the pistol into Brannigan’s gut in the dark, but strength prevailed and, in seconds, Brannigan had managed to bend the pistol against the outlaw’s chest, Dupree’s finger still on the trigger.
“Lemme go, driver. I got a fortune in them sacks. Lemme go and it’s all yours. Please, man, in the name of God, lemme go. Please, please, get this damned dog off me. I won’t shoot y’all.”
“You gotta let go the pistol, DuPree. Yeah, I know your name. Let go and you can come on back to San Antonio and be hanged at the judge’s convenience.”
DuPree marshalled his strength and made one more attempt to turn the Colt back toward Brannigan. The effort caused his trigger finger to close and the big Colt fired, striking DuPree squarely in the heart. He grunted and went limp. Brannigan felt in the dark for a pulse. The man was dead. Brannigan crawled and found Harvey Smith. He was dead, too.
“Reverend Lightfeather sends his regards.” Brannigan regained his feet. “Miss Monroe?” he called out.
“Over here,” she whimpered. Charlie instantly found her in the dark, summoning Brannigan with a soft “woof.”
Brannigan made his way toward her voice and managed to untie her hands in total darkness. Up close, she still smelled of lilac cologne despite the ordeal of the past several hours.
“Did they... hurt you, ma’am?” He pulled her to her feet. He couldn’t bring himself to ask the vital question.
“No, but they were talking... about what they were going to do to me just before you arrived. Oh God, thank you Mister... Barnaby, was it.?”
“Brannigan... Henry Paul Brannigan, ma’am.”
The body of the cowboy, Smith, was sprawled across the smothered fire. Brannigan rolled it over, and in minutes had re-stoked a small fire, providing dim light. He found a slab of bacon and an iron skillet in the outlaws’ gear and within minutes the tantalizing smell of frying bacon drifted through the dusty, barren hills. He rolled DuPree’s body over and retrieved his Colt and gun belt.
Suddenly, Miss Monroe rushed forward and clung to his neck desperately. “Henry Paul Brannigan, I think I love you.”
“Ma’am, that’s sort of a quick decision.” But he found her words exhilarating.
“Had you not followed, they would have... done unspeakable things... then murdered me. They had no intention of ransoming me to my father.”
The words he hadn’t been able to ask, relieved but repulsed the solid, stoic Brannigan. “Ma’am, I’ll round up their horses and come daylight, we’ll head home to your father... and return the gold and notes to the stage line.”
When daylight began creeping in, they sat before the fire, feasting on bacon and the remainder of Brannigan’s loaf of bread. Miss Monroe clung to Brannigan like a newborn calf to its mother. Charlie moved closer and nuzzled into the mix, delighted with his reward of a hearty portion of bacon. Both Brannigan and Charlie endured Miss Monroe’s washing and cleansing the shotgun butt wounds on the backs of their heads.
“I can’t believe I spent the night sitting on the ground eating bacon next to two dead men,” she said, averting her eyes from the bodies.
“Ma’am, trust me, they needed killing.”
She smiled, nodding agreement. “How long have you had Charlie, Henry Paul?”
“Oh, since about six yesterday morning.”
She stared hard at him, unsure if the comment was a joke.
“Yep.” He stood upright. “About time to saddle up, ma’am.”
“Henry Paul Brannigan, for the love of mercy, my name is Elizabeth. When we get back to San Antonio, I expect you to come to our house for Sunday dinner. My father is going to be very grateful, and so am I. You were marvelous, and so was Charlie. He can come to dinner, too. Those were mean, dangerous men.”
“They just talked tough, ma’am... er, Miss Elizabeth.”
She stood, patted Charlie on the head, and looked Brannigan squarely in the eyes. “How old are you, anyway?”
“Twenty-four, ma’am... er, Elizabeth. ”
“I’m twenty-two. I thought you were older. You’re so...”
Impulsively, she stood on tiptoe and delivered a lingering kiss. Brannigan had little experience with women, especially a rich, beautiful one who smelled like lilac. He absorbed the kiss and returned it in kind. Charlie woofed his approval. Brannigan turned to saddle the horses.
His mind was a kaleidoscope of hopeful expectation. Would this fine young lady really be interested in a clod like him? Not likely. While he had the chance, he turned back, swept her up in his powerful arms and planted another kiss. Charlie applauded vocally again.
Devoid of much emotion, Brannigan would not chance allowing himself to hope even faintly this might be the beginning of something permanent. But the thought made him feel ten feet tall.
Copyright © 2017 by Gary Clifton