The Dance Hall Bounty Hunters
by Gary Clifton
“For heaven’s sake, Henry Paul Brannigan, you take another fall and the doc may have to saw that leg off next time.” Elizabeth Monroe Brannigan snugged the big bay gelding’s reins an extra notch around the top corral rail to make a more stationary target for her husband to mount.
“I’m okay, Liz.” Brannigan managed to climb the first two rails and carefully swung his splinted left leg over the horse’s back, settling into the saddle. The animal shied slightly at the rider mounting from the wrong side, but quickly calmed. “Doc says I can get this splint off in two more weeks.”
“You certainly are in a lot of pain for a nearly cured patient.” Elizabeth smiled up at him as she mounted her own horse. Together they started their daily ride to the First Bank of Uvalde, which they had managed for Elizabeth’s father for the past three years.
Brannigan’s recovery from a leg broken when his horse threw him during a shootout with the gang of the notorious Texas gunfighter King Fisher had been slow. Never prone to complaining, he’d managed to remain active.
Brannigan’s exploits with guns had earned considerable respect throughout the territory. His first call after being appointed a Special Texas Ranger had been the result of two drunks fighting on the boardwalk of the Green Daisy, one of two saloons across broad Main Street from Brannigan’s First Bank.
He’d hobbled across on a cane and ordered the brawlers to desist. In fear of Brannigan’s embellished reputation with a gun, they did so immediately.
A few days later, local blacksmith William “Bear” Smith, a huge twenty-seven year old from “back east” known for his great strength, gentle nature, strange accent, and the Derby hat he wore constantly, had gone quail hunting a few miles north of Uvalde. When a large bobcat had ventured too close, showing more than expected aggression, Bear shot the calf-killing nuisance.
A bobcat skin had value as a household throw rug. Bear tied the carcass behind his saddle as he returned to town. Tossing the dead animal in a smokehouse behind his shop, he learned around 2:00 a.m. that it took more than one Winchester .30-30 round to kill the creature.
Bear, feeling remorse for the wounded animal, decided to keep it penned up in his smokehouse until the bullet wound healed before he turned it back into the wild. The injury turned out to be superficial, and the animal soon regained full health. To turn it loose while injured was a death sentence, and Bear had not the heart to try a second time to kill it.
Surprisingly, the female bobcat warmed to Bear and, while never a pet, allowed him to enter the smokehouse with food and water. But no other human, Brannigan included, could duplicate Bear’s relationship with the savage animal.
The porous smokehouse was wooden, made with two- and three-inch gaps between vertical siding boards to allow ventilation as meat was cured. The design also allowed the cat to reach through the gaps.
Word of the captive animal spread quickly around the small town. Brannigan came over and, after some discussion with Bear Smith, a close friend with whom Elizabeth and he attended church together, they formed an innovative idea. They would use the makeshift animal cage as a jail until a proper structure could be built. Brannigan agreed his bank would pay Bear to patch any weak spots in the construction and to attach a three-foot chain to a corner beam.
Brannigan also agreed to pay Bear one dollar per night for each prisoner Brannigan handcuffed to the end of the chain. And Bear was named the town jailer. In a week, Brannigan arrested two cowhands who’d gotten drunk in one of the saloons for firing pistols in the air inside city limits. After spending the night tethered three feet from a bobcat hostile to strangers, both were very repentant, hung-over sinners the following morning.
The prisoners learned if they remained perfectly still, the bobcat would soon forget them. If they struggled or tried to escape, the animal did all she could to escape and attack them. Brannigan and Bear saw that a night within a single leap of the vicious creature had marvelous rehabilitation potential.
Word quickly spread throughout the territory that Uvalde, Texas was an extremely poor location to be arrested. Brannigan, Elizabeth, Bear, and the mayor met and voted to name the bobcat “Doctor Sweet.” It was said if a man was arrested in Uvalde, the doctor would see him next. If the “Doc” didn’t tame them, the heat or cold would.
* * *
By the end of November 1872, Brannigan’s leg had completely healed, and the town of Uvalde continued to grow. Counting occupants of the scattered ranches throughout the territory, the total population of the county was over seven hundred. Brannigan watched with quiet alarm as one of the two saloons across the street, the Green Daisy, expanded into a full-time dance hall, with four regular girls on board.
Although business was sparse on weekdays, cowhands flowed in from the surrounding ranches on Friday and Saturday nights. The men were naturally attracted to women, even ugly ones, and were becoming an increasing problem.
One late afternoon, as he stood in the open bank doorway, the chill of winter blowing in from the North, he craned his neck and remarked over his shoulder to Elizabeth and teller Fred Thompson, “Lord ’a mercy, where did ol’ Pig Pickens find four women all so fat and ugly?”
Elizabeth, now nearing delivery time of her baby and relegated to travel by buggy only, replied, “Well, Henry Paul Brannigan, if you weren’t standing there leering at them, they might not be out on that balcony in the cold trying to put on a little show for your big, ornery carcass. Please close the door.”
Brannigan, turned fully around, his frame filling the doorway. “Aw, Liz, just thinkin’ of the problems that place could cause.” He spoke from experience.
Three days earlier, Brannigan had been forced to ride out to the Bar-M ranch and arrest a young cowboy for the previous Saturday night’s attempted murder of a Uvalde citizen. After two night’s consultation with Doc Sweet and only a single blanket against the cold, the miscreant had become a born-again Christian who swore never to darken the door of the Daisy again. The intended victim declined to prosecute, not uncommon in the territory.
County officials had ordered construction to begin on a new Uvalde County Courthouse and jail, but completion of the two-story masonry building was over a year away. In the absence of a formal Ranger office, Brannigan received any official correspondence at the First Bank. Various papers arrived regularly, including wanted posters usually headed by an unrecognizable sketch of the face of the wanted man.
Brannigan read of a new offset printing process being perfected. Photography had improved greatly during the Civil War, but no technology yet existed to allow an actual head-shot photograph to be impressed on a wanted poster for mass distribution. A method was being developed whereby an artist could draw over the features of a photograph, the ink thus creating a printable and reasonably legible likeness that could be reproduced by printing press and distributed widely.
Thumbing through his mail one morning, the normally unflappable Brannigan was astounded at the resemblance of the subject of a newly arrived poster to Bear Smith. Blaring “Wanted for Murder, New York City Police Department,” in bold across the top. The flyer provided a description of the wanted man, and it fit his good friend uncomfortably close. The document stated the wanted man was named Willard McReedy, age now approximately 27... about Bear’s age.
Brannigan had heard of New York and it’s reportedly huge population, but he had always doubted such a place existed. People couldn’t live under such circumstances, he’d reasoned in the limited time he’d ever considered the matter.
He walked through the morning cold to Bear’s blacksmith shop. Brannigan’s dog, Charlie, followed. Doctor Sweet gave him and Charlie a particularly nasty growling greeting before flopping in a corner of her smokehouse prison-hospital.
Charlie, big and fearless, eyed the feline critter without responding. Brannigan grinned, figuring Charlie was thinking something like, “C’mon out, kitty. Let’s see what you got.” Brannigan’s money would be on Charlie.
Bear was busy applying a bellows to heat his ever-present fire pit. Without comment, Brannigan handed him the wanted poster.
“Henry Paul... uh, I can explain,” Bear stammered, stepping backward. Not as tall as Brannigan, with his massive frame, he probably outweighed the Ranger-banker by thirty pounds.
“Bear, I didn’t walk down here to fight with you or, for that matter, to place you under arrest. I just wondered what—?
“Henry, me ’n my mama immigrated from Ireland. I got drafted by the army and, when the war ended, I mustered out and was blacksmithing in a New York neighborhood known as Five Points. The area was just getting ramped up. Guess it’s worse now. Several Irish gangs who extorted money from anyone trying to run a business in the area were all vying for control.”
“There really a million people in New York, Bear?”
The big blacksmith nodded. “More, maybe. The same two thugs came ’round every Friday and, each trip, demanded more cash than they’d stolen the week before.” He pulled off his soiled Derby to show Brannigan a jagged scar across the back of his hairline.
Brannigan inspected the scar without comment.
“One day, finally, I objected and one of ’em, a flunky named O’Reilly, hit me with an iron pipe on the back of my head. My mama was in her little office, doin’ the bookkeeping. She rushed out and he hit her with that thing. Next thing I knew, I’d beat both of ’em down, bad down.”
“Like in... dead?”
Bear nodded, his eyes filling with tears. “And mama, she was dead, too. Cops come ’round. They was corrupt and run by the gangs. I whupped the three of them and ran. I sent money back to a friend, just after I first high-tailed it, to bury mama. Took me a year to drift as far as Uvalde. Guess now you’re gonna arrest me and send me back.”
“Hey, Bear, my father was Irish, and I am, too, I suppose. Met lots of Irishmen during the war, Bear. Some were okay, but some wanted to fight all the time. I accommodated three or four of them.” He took back the wanted poster and tossed it into the fire. “A million people and most of them Irish is too many anyway. Nobody in that there New York City is going to miss you, Bear. Besides, we can’t lose our Chief Jailer to New York City, wherever that is.”
Bear, tears welling up, said, “My God, Henry, I don’t know what to say.”
“Well, you can tell me again: where in the world do you put a million people? There’s not that many in all of Texas.”
“Bear, say nothing to nobody. Our greatest danger is — now that printing presses can use a photograph to produce a likeness this accurate — you need to watch out for other officers, or worse: bounty hunters. There’s a hundred-dollar reward offered at the bottom of that poster. Hard tellin’ what sort of human coyote might make the connection.”
That night, Elizabeth went into labor and by three in the morning, Doc Blankenship, a real physician, had ridden out in his carriage. Despite Brannigan’s fainting in the midst of the delivery, Henry Paul Brannigan, Jr., weighing eight pounds on the chicken scale, was brought into the world. Birth was with minimum difficulty aside from the mother’s pain.
Brannigan and Bear Smith handled the tiny bundle of newborn with their large, indelicate hands, each appearing terrified of dropping him at any second. Brannigan chuckled. “He looks like a dried-up little toad.” “That oughta be a darn fine nickname,” Bear replied. Elizabeth, normally soft-spoken, barked with the voice of maternal authority, “Why don’t you call him ‘Varmint’? It’s just as demeaning.” “Oh, my, Liz,” Brannigan stammered, we were just—” “Now, ‘Tad’ seems like an appropriate young man’s nickname. Far better than ‘Junior’.” She smiled as Brannigan clumsily handed the infant back to her. Brannigan and Bear, both well aware when they’d been bested, nodded in rapid agreement. Little “Toad” became Little Tad. Christmas had drifted by, and the early signs of spring 1873 drifted in on south wind from Mexico. Despite Henry’s protests and bank teller Fred Thompson’s admonishment, Elizabeth resumed her daily eight-mile buggy ride with two-month old Little Tad, back to work in the bank.
Brannigan had an extra wood stove moved into the rear area of the bank, and Elizabeth, after bunking Little Henry in an open desk drawer for several weeks, ordered a mail-order crib for more permanent storage of the infant.
Brannigan soon forgot about the “wanted” poster and hoped, rather naively, that the matter was closed.
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Gary Clifton