New Guns in the Valley
by Gary Clifton
“Henry Paul Brannigan, you’re going to be a father,” Elizabeth announced on their daily trip from their sprawling ranch to The First Bank of Uvalde. This warm spring day, they had chosen to ride separate mounts the eight miles.
Brannigan’s huge mongrel, Charlie, trotted along behind. He had spent his day dozing on the back stoop of the bank, patiently waiting for the evening jaunt home, rising only for the many head pats town children regularly dropped by to deliver.
“Outstanding,” the big, deliberate, stagecoach driver turned banker flashed a toothy grin. He reached across and nearly unhorsed her with a bear hug. Charlie woofed his approval.
Brannigan had met his wife when she was abducted from a stagecoach he was driving nearly two years earlier. Partly in gratitude, influenced by Brannigan’s sharp wit and innate intelligence, Elizabeth’s father, Chester Monroe, owner of the First Bank of San Antonio, had hired him to manage the startup Uvalde branch eighty miles southeast of San Antonio.
Five months earlier, three men had attempted to rob the Uvalde bank. Brannigan had killed two and intentionally let the younger of the three go free with $500 of bank money to pay off a crushing mortgage. In the robbery, Brannigan’s regular teller had been murdered by one of robbers that Brannigan had subsequently killed.
Brannigan had managed to find another suitable teller. With Elizabeth as bookkeeper and jack of all trades, and himself as loan officer and general manager, they managed to continue to expand the bank’s success. Life was slow and good. Now Elizabeth had delivered life-changing news, but he well knew life had a strange way of leveling out the positives.
Brannigan and others often referred to Uvalde County as a valley. Although not exactly a valley, the area was a fertile stretch at the southern end of the Texas Hill Country, offering arable ground and water conducive to farming and ranching. The terrain changed into unforgiving Texas scrub brush and sand to the south and west. There, the landscape was dry and useable for little except rattlesnakes and men up to no good.
In Brannigan’s tenure with the bank, Uvalde County had seen the immigration of both Anglo settlers from back east and Hispanic families intent on settling in the fertile oasis. The First Bank had financed many homesteads strewn across the county.
In recent weeks, the area had seen violence. Two settlers’ ranches had been burned out, the occupants murdered, and all livestock rustled and driven far enough out of the area that no trace had ever been detected.
Brannigan’s First Bank, holding the mortgages on both properties, was now in custody of two properties of greatly reduced worth, made less valuable by the bank’s inability to find next of kin and by the violence that had devastated the families.
* * *
By mid-morning, the temperature has risen to meet a beautiful sunny day. Elizabeth had opened all windows and doors in the boxy little building. Then, bad news arrived in a swirl of dust through the front door.
Two men, coated with trail grime, both with six-shooters worn low and tied down, entered and approached Barnnigan’s new teller, Fred Thompson. No other customer was in the bank. Elizabeth, wiser for the earlier robbery, looked warily up from her desk near the rear of the caged area. She caught Brannigan’s eye.
Brannigan nodded at her to let Charlie in the back door. Rising casually, he stepped around the counter. Since the robbery, he’d learned to keep his .44 Colt holstered and concealed beneath his suit coat.
Brannigan, calm as always, measured his words. “King Fisher. Long time no see. A bit off your territory, aren’t you?”
John King Fisher, like Brannigan, hailed from Eagle Pass, Texas, sixty miles southwest, on the Rio Grande. A frequent troublemaker with a reputation as one of the deadliest gunfighters in the Southwest, he was reputed to have killed several men. Fisher was notorious for frequent brushes with the law. Actually younger than Brannigan, he turned to face the young banker.
His sidekick, a swarthy man in need of a shave and bath, moved to beside Fisher. Both stood facing Brannigan, legs spread in the classic gunfighter pose.
Teller Fred Thompson’s face showed instant fear. “Henry Paul?” he said through the teller’s cage, his voice quavering. He was well aware of the fate of his predecessor.
“Step back, Fred,” Brannigan ordered calmly, noting that Charlie, big as a spring calf had quietly walked around the counter and was standing, docilely behind him in the bank lobby.
Neither intruder moved.
“King, I thought you were up at Huntsville prison,” Brannigan said softly, “doing time for horse theft.”
Ignoring the comment, Fisher said, “You’re Brannigan? Yeah, Brannigan. I remember you from Eagle Pass. I heard you was the same Brannigan who gunned Harvey Smith, the Sonora Kid, a year or two back?” His rugged face twisted into a sneer. “You musta become some kinda hotshot gunfighter.”
Brannigan held the killer’s gaze. “He robbed the stage, murdered a passenger, kidnapped another, then tried to bushwhack me. I did what I had to do.”
Neither King Fisher nor his companion changed expressions.
Brannigan continued, “This bank has had to foreclose on two destroyed ranches, burned up north. Rustlers stole all the cattle and murdered nine people, including two women and five kids. Interesting to see King Fisher in the area.”
Fisher’s face hardened. “That a damned accusation, big man?”
Brannigan calmly pulled back his coat, showing the Colt. “Nope, but if there’s a third rider out back or in the alley holding your horses, I’ll take it you’re fixin’ to rob the bank, and we’ll see if you’re as handy with that Colt as you are with your mouth.”
“You the law, Brannigan?”
Brannigan smiled softly and didn’t answer.
“Damnation, man. We was jes’ passing’ through and needed to change a fifty. You got no way to know my business.”
“King Fisher, I’ve already heard all about your business.”
“Yeah, what did you hear, banker boy?”
“I hear you were a no-account back-shooting coward.”
Behind the counter, Elizabeth gasped audibly.
Fisher and his helper both yanked at their tied down Colts with rattlesnake speed, but a shade slower than Charlie, who piled into Fisher, knocking him into the second man. Both ended up on the bank floor, the normally gentle pet ripping at them like a rabid mountain lion.
Brannigan covered both with his Colt. “What about it, boys, is there a third man down the alley, holding your horses?”
Fisher and the second man both screamed for Brannigan to call off the dog.
“Toss those Colts over here at my feet, gents. You shoot the dog, I won’t miss from this distance.”
Both men complied, the heavy pistols thudding on the wooden plank floor.
“Enough, Charlie,” Brannigan said. Charlie retreated, but stood close, teeth bared in a terrifying display of ferocity. The child-friendly pet had another side. The sound of a horse being ridden away from the alley was loud and clear. Fisher had intended to rob the bank. Or try, Brannigan concluded.
“Hope he left you two a pair of mounts so you can hightail it back the same way you got here.”
He motioned both to their feet and out the front door. A pair of geldings were tied to a hitchrail in the alley. Brannigan said, “I’ll have my teller unload your Colts, and you can take them with you. Now get mounted and head out.”
Fisher’s face was a mask of hate and death. “You ain’t heard the last of King Fisher, sodbuster. Whatcha say about that?”
“Guess I’m too scared to talk, King. Unless you’re as dumb as you look, don’t show up around here again, I don’t care how many farmers you’ve backshot.”
Teller Thompson handed both riders their Colts, and they disappeared in a cloud of dust to the east, over the rickety Leona River bridge.
Copyright © 2017 by Gary Clifton