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The Dance Hall Bounty Hunters

by Gary Clifton

Part 1 appears
in this issue.


The Green Daisy quickly became an increasing irritation which could not be so easily slipped under the rug. Early one Saturday morning, a lone rider showed up at the ranch to inform Brannigan that a “gunman” from Laredo had shot a cowhand in the Daisy. The cowhand’s wound was minor, but the shooter, a stranger who wore his gun tied down, was still on the premises, promising to kill any law who interfered.

Brannigan, over the protests of Elizabeth, saddled Buck and cantered the horse along the dark road toward Uvalde, Charlie faithfully following. Circling to the rear door, he encountered the gunfighter leaned against the bar, drunk, unruly, unshaven in weeks, and promising to kill anyone who tried to arrest him.

Brannigan casually approached the man, drew his Colt revolver and coldcocked the rowdy onto the rough plank floor. In ten minutes, he was tethered to Doc Sweet’s smokehouse jail, trembling with fear and from the cover of only a single blanket. Brannigan wired San Antonio, who agreed to send a Ranger for the prisoner first thing in the morning.

The matter should have ended there, had not the prisoner closely studied the facial features of Bear Smith, his gentle jailer.

The stranger was brought back to Uvalde where, still in the absence of a courthouse, he was tried for murder in the very tavern where he’d shot a man. To no one’s surprise, lack of witnesses and the victim’s non-enthusiasm for prosecution resulted in the shooter’s being acquitted.

Brannigan put the defendant on a stagecoach to San Antonio with the cold-eyed admonishment that if he returned to Uvalde, there’d be no trial next time. The still-boyish, ever-polite banker turned part-time lawman was developing a hard edge.

Winter had begun giving way to spring, with violence at the Daisy increasing weekly. Then one early afternoon, bartender-owner Pickens burst into the bank. “That feller you hurrahed a couple of months ago is drunk at my bar. Says he’s here for the hundred-dollar bounty on somebody, wouldn’t say who. Got two gunslinger types with him, both lookin’ meaner ’n hell. Killers, sure as sundown, Ranger.”

Word sped like dust on the wind as Bannigan strode down the street, Charlie trotting along beside. Behind him, he knew Elizabeth was standing on the bank boardwalk, frantic. People were speaking in hushed whispers, fearful that the young Brannigan was about to meet his doom.

He eased in through the back door of the darkened dance hall. Light from the street clearly revealed three lean, trail-dust covered men, all with six-shooters tied to their legs, leaning on the bar. In the dim light, he recognized the man closest to him as the drifter he’d subdued and held two nights in “jail” several weeks before, before being acquitted of attempted murder.

All three gunmen were momentarily distracted when owner Pickens, apparently concerned over his place of business, entered the swinging doors in front.

Brannigan covered the three with his colt. “Gents, I’m Texas Ranger Brannigan. How about each of you lay both hands on the bar.”

The man he’d arrested before said, “This ain’t your concern, Ranger. They’s a hunnert-dollar bounty on that blacksmith, and we aim to legally carry him back to San Antone and collect it.”

Brannigan would have none of it. “He’s my deputy and a law-abiding citizen of this community. All three of you can keep those hoglegs, just as soon as y’all ease back out front and ride back where you came from.”

The saloon girls and about a half dozen patrons fled out the front door. Bartender Pickens crawled under the bar.

Without hesitation, all three gunslingers went for their pistols. Brannigan’s first shot caught the man doing the talking in the chest, driving him backwards. He hit the floor, dead, before the other two could clear leather.

Charlie, lunged, crashing at chest level into the second man, spoiling his aim. Brannigan’s second shot hit the man in the throat, blood spurting as he fell dead beside the first. Then a round from the third man hit the cylinder of Brannigan’s Colt, miraculously saving his life, but shattering the weapon.

Brannigan ducked behind the bar just as the third gunman smashed his Colt into Charlie’s head. The dog hit the floor next to the two dead men.

“You have a gun back here?” he called out to bartender Pickens, who was curled in a ball at the far end of the bar.

“N... no.”

For not the first time in his life, Brannigan crouched, awaiting instant death. Again, he wondered why he was not afraid.

The remaining gunman strutted the length of the bar, confronting Brannigan kneeling at the far back end.

“Fool, you killed Rance and Miller. We wasn’t doin’ no wrong. Now it’s your turn.” He leveled his pistol at Brannigan and pulled back the hammer of the single action Colt.

The explosion of gunfire was deafening. Brannigan, convinced he was killed, felt no pain. When his would-be killer crashed to the floor three feet away, he realized the man had not fired.

“Well, Brannigan, I believe I would’a made a run for it,” said Bear Smith, standing halfway down the bar. Gunsmoke wafted from one of the two barrels of the shotgun he still pointed at the downed gunman.

“Bear... good God,” Brannigan managed as he stood upright.

Bear grinned. “Well, see if he’s dead. I don’t wanna waste another shell if it ain’t necessary.”

“He’s dead all right, Bear. How—?”

“It’s all over the street. Three bounty hunters drinking up some courage. Figured it was me they were after. Saw you walk down this way and figured you’d need a bit of help.”

“I guess thanks would be in order, Bear.”

“Not at all, Henry Paul. Word isn’t on the street it was me they were after. Not yet. But I think I oughta be movin’ on, pronto. Like to Montana.”

“Bear, you know, if you lay low around here a spell, I’m betting no other trail bum is stupid enough to try again for a lousy hundred dollars. Tell you what. It’s been ten years. Anyone else ever shows... and I doubt they will, send them to the bank and we’ll give them a hundred. It’s worth that much to have a blacksmith, livery stable, and escape-proof jail.”

Bear grinned. “Henry, that’s pretty risky... but I like the idea.” He studied the three dead gunslingers, strewn along the bar. “Might shoulda offered that hundred here.”

Brannigan, examining the shattered fragments of his Colt, said, “They didn’t give me a chance to make an offer.”

Elizabeth burst in the door. Working her way around three bodies on the floor, she threw herself in Brannigan’s arms. “Henry Paul, you must quit this insane Ranger job.”

“Aw, Liz, I hadn’t come down here, we might have lost our blacksmith and jailer. He’s worth the trouble. Bear, soon as Mr. Smothers gets here in his hearse to pick up these three, c’mon over to the bank. I don’t know if I have authority, but I’m gonna officially swear you in as my deputy anyway. No bounty hunter would make a run at a commissioned officer.”

Charlie struggled to his feet, a lump on the top of his head, but apparently none the worse for wear.

Elizabeth crooned, “Oh, Charlie, honey, I need to get you over to the livery where we can doctor you up.”

“Where’s the baby, Liz?” Brannigan said, suddenly.

“Fred’s watching him.”

Brannigan turned to the bar. Bartender Pickens had just cautiously raised his head above the top.

“Ranger, I ain’t heard none of that conversation,” he blurted. The code of the times and the ever-expanding reputation of Brannigan guaranteed he would stick by his vow.

Brannigan flashed his crooked grin. “Barkeep, you wouldn’t have three glasses of milk back there somewhere by any chance? And a bowl for Charlie?”

Pickens nodded and reached under the bar.

“Bear,” Brannigan said thoughtfully, looking down at his shattered weapon, “I reckon I’m gonna be needing me a new pistol.”

Copyright © 2017 by Gary Clifton

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