by Gary Clifton
““Man alive, Henry,” said Bear Smith, “you’re gonna be carryin’ enough iron to draw lightning.”
“I’ll take that risk, Bear. My old Colt pistol saved my life when those bounty hunters blew it away instead of me, back in the Green Daisy saloon. Now this new pistol will fire the same bullets as my rifle. And what do you think of this two-shot Derringer here?” Henry Brannigan patted his right boot. Charlie, his big mongrel, sniffed at it and sneezed.
“Ain’t nothin’ to sneeze at, Charlie,” said Bear, scratching behind Charlie’s ears.
Charlie woofed in big, brown-eyed agreement.
* * *
Two more years passed lazily. Chester Monroe, Elizabeth’s father, had dropped dead at his desk in San Antonio, leaving the City Bank of San Antonio and the First Bank of Uvalde to Elizabeth and Brannigan.
In 1875, Henry Paul, Jr. — “Tad” as Elizabeth had nicknamed him — was two and a half years old. Elizabeth, at 28, capable, resourceful, with a solid work ethic, remained a beauty, the prettiest lady in the territory.
Although often worried and concerned about Brannigan’s frequent brushes with danger as a Texas Ranger, Elizabeth was the stabilizing force in his life, and she was helped by the solid, fearless, faithful presence of Charlie, his large, four-legged companion.
Elizabeth continued to carry Tad to work with her daily to the City Bank. He played in and around the bank and soon became a town favorite equal to Charlie, the versatile giant. A handsome child, Henry Jr. had inherited his mother’s blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair complexion.
Brannigan turned 30. Despite being a largely sedentary banker, he remained muscular and fit through hard work maintaining their ranch and handling rough cowboys who got out of line in the Green Daisy. His own herd grew to 189 longhorns, three barn cats, and a full-time ranch hand, Emilio Alvarez.
* * *
Uvalde had no county sheriff or town marshal. Ranger duty, aside from barroom brawls, required that Brannigan look into a common problem in the isolated, cattle-rich countryside. Brannigan was well aware crime was rampant in the so-called Nueces Strip, but working alone, there was little he could do.
Rustlers were continuing to siphon off scattered parts of herds and drive them out of the territory, often unseen or unreported to Brannigan for weeks.
Two ranchers were wounded. No rustlers were caught. Disturbing reports circulated that the rustlers were a band of Apaches, from further west, who drove the stolen livestock southeast, fording the Rio Grande into Mexico, and altering the animal’s brands for shipment north to U.S. rail lines.
The problem persisted. Brannigan thought it out of character for Apaches to drift so far east of their usual territory but, with Charlie, he spent many nights doggedly continuing his investigations, riding over darkened prairie.
At just before midnight on a moonlit, early summer night, Brannigan came across tracks of a herd of ten or twelve cattle which had been driven across the Rock Springs Road north of Uvalde. The signs, barely visible in the sandy soil, were nonetheless discernible along with the horse tracks of at least two men who had been herding them.
Brannigan climbed down from Buck and examined the tracks by match light. At least one rider had been riding a shod horse, with a piece of horseshoe missing from the right front hoof, not normally Apache equipment.
The following morning, Brannigan briefed Bear Smith at his blacksmith shop on what he’d seen.
“Gotta plan, Henry Paul?” Bear rolled a cigarette awkwardly, progress limited by his work-hardened, calloused fingers.
“Yeah. Right now, I’m thinkin’ we need to have a word with Pig Pickens. Every lowlife drifter that passes through Uvalde ends up in the Green Daisy eventually.”
Bear wiped sweat from his brow, tilting his derby back as he touched the brim. “I’m ready to walk over and talk with him now, if you are, Henry Paul.”
“No, Bear, I think we need to lure him out of his nest.”
Brannigan called over a small boy walking past, flipped him a quarter, and instructed him to go tell Pig Pickens the Ranger wanted to see him at Bear’s blacksmith shop. The kid skipped across the wide street.
“Think he’ll come?” Bear stared after the boy.
“Yep.” Brannigan’s reputation for being a tough customer had grown. Pickens would be afraid not to come.
In minutes, the pudgy frame of Pickens was recognizable crossing the hot, dusty street. He was fortyish, paunchy, with a scraggly beard. Typical of men who work inside, he wore no hat. “Whut the hell, Brannigan? I got customers.”
“Yeah, and I know you got one of those ol’ gals who work for you trained to tend bar, so dummy up and answer a few questions.”
“Anything to help the law, Ranger.” He avoided Brannigan’s direct gaze.
“Pig, you know we’ve had a rash of cattle rustling in the territory. People talk, and sooner or later just about every lowlife turns up at your joint. A dropped word now would be money in your screw-up bank next time Bear or I have to come in and break up a brawl, ’cuz I’m gonna start jailing you every time we have to come over there.”
“Uh... Ranger, there’s a new saddle tramp been hanging around the past couple of days. Says he’s waitin’ on his ‘partners’ to show up.”
“Where’s he stay?”
“Gotta bedroll behind his saddle. I figure he sleeps out on the prairie nearby somewhere.”
“Describe him.” Brannigan folded his arms across his chest.
“Skinny little man, maybe twenty-two or three. Dirty white Stetson. Rides that gray gelding tied to the hitchrack over there.” Pickens pointed his chin across the street.
Worrried that the toughs at the bar had seen him talking with Brannigan, Pickens returned to the Green Daisy by walking around the block.
Brannigan waited twenty minutes and with Charlie walked across to the gray gelding. He raised the hooves to inspect each horseshoe. A section was missing from the right front hoof.
On the fourth hoof, the skinny young man in the dirty Stetson stormed out of the Green Daisy filled with whiskey courage. “Man messes with my animal could get himself killed, mister.”
Seeing the possible confrontation, Bear left his blacksmithing forge and hurried across the street.
Brannigan dropped the fourth hoof, stood upright, the Ranger badge on his chest prominent. He studied the young man at length. “Where you from, sir?”
“None of your—”
Charlie growled ominously at the man’s tone. Brannigan whipped out his .44. “Simple question requires a simple answer, partner.” He nodded to Charlie. “You want me to have Charlie ask you? Now where–?”
“El Paso. Damnation, man, careful with that iron. Just passin’ through on the way to San Antone. Waiting for a friend.”
“What’s your name?”
“Uh... Sinclair. Sheldon Sinclair.”
“I saw rustlers’ tracks this other night. One of ’em missing a piece from the right front shoe.”
“Ranger, I only got here yesterday.”
Brannigan read the lie in his face. “Mr. Sinclair, I suggest you water this horse, get on it, and be over the Leona River bridge at the end of the street in five minutes.” He pulled back the hammer on the .44.
“How’s my friends gonna find me?”
“I’ll tell him you went on to San Antone. Four minutes, better git.”
After Sinclair had left, Bear turned to Brannigan. “Notice he said ‘friends’”?
“Yup,” Brannigan replied. “Telling the truth in spite of himself, was he? And that gray has a piece missing from the shoe on his right front hoof... like the track I spotted the other night. Lots of horses have pieces missing from a shoe, but I have a funny feeling we’ll see that print again.”
“Think he’ll ride all the way to San Antone, Henry Paul?”
“No, he’ll set up camp eight, ten miles out and wait for whoever it is he’s supposed to meet. He’s got no plans to go to San Antone, anyway, Bear.”
* * *
That afternoon, Judge Elwood Mayfield unexpectedly summoned Brannigan to his chambers and announced Governor Coke had promoted him to full time Ranger at a salary of $40 monthly. Brannigan accepted, but warned the judge that Uvalde needed a town marshal, a county sheriff, or both.
When he explained the shod horseshoe tracks to the judge, the old man shrugged and said, “Apache could have stolen a shod horse, Brannigan.”
To the relief of the rowdy element in Uvalde, the new courthouse was completed. It was widely rumored that when finished, the services of Doc Sweet, the bobcat penned in Bear’s smokehouse, would no longer be necessary. Chaining prisoners to a post, three feet from Doc’s reach, had served its purpose. Bear Smith had grown fond of the wild beast and continued to keep her as a “pet” although she was no longer in charge of the Uvalde County “Jail.”
Thoughts of the evil side of society were far from Brannigan’s mind when a Scandinavian family, Hector and Agnes Osmond and their two children, Peter, 19 and Mary, 17, entered the First Bank and paid the entire $190 mortgage against their ranch north of Uvalde. Agnes and Mary spent time cooing over little Tad, while Brannigan, Hector, and Peter had coffee at Conchita’s Bakery across the street.
“Are you going to stay on and help your father ranch, Peter?” Brannigan asked. “Our bank can help you with a starter loan for a place of your own if you want to follow in your dad’s footsteps.”
“Thinking maybe I’ll drift up to Dallas. See what opportunities are available for a young man.”
Hector Osmond shook his head sadly.
Brannigan strongly urged Peter either to ranch or try for some advanced schooling up at Baylor College and to avoid the big city of Dallas if at all possible. Not surprised at the young man’s lack of interest, Brannigan made no further suggestions.
The Osmonds rode away in a battered buggy, happy and healthy. Times were good.
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Gary Clifton