by Gary Clifton
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
On a scorching hot August mid-morning, a few days after Brannigan’s meeting with the Osmonds, a slender youth clinging to a mule rode bareback to the front boardwalk of the First Bank, slumping into the dust as he dismounted. Brannigan rushed out to join the several other townspeople who’d gathered.
“I know this young man. He was just in the bank last week.” Brannigan knelt beside the youth, who had a fresh wound prominent on his left shoulder. “Peter Osmond... His family owns a spread up north.”
“Mister Brannigan, help,” the young Osmond gasped. “Indians... Apaches, raided our place. Killed my mama and papa and my dog.” He broke into sobs. “Stole our cattle and... oh my God, they carried away my sister, Mary.”
“How long ago?” Brannigan asked.
“At dusk yesterday. I was too bad hurt to get here any quicker.” Brannigan examined the wound and concluded it was not life-threatening.
Elizabeth had followed Brannigan out. She looked down on the fallen boy and exclaimed, “Mary! My God, Henry Paul, she was in the bank last week. She’s only 17... God help us.”
Bear Smith, having witnessed the encounter strode off. He soon returned, riding a black mare. He was leading Buck, Brannigan’s bay gelding, fully saddled, and also a third horse, a sack tied across its back. A Winchester stock extended from his saddle scabbard, a revolver was thrust into his waistband.
“Henry, I’ve got water, grain, food, and extra ammunition ready. If we’re gonna get after that bunch, we need to get started, pronto. I’m bettin’ they’ll trail southeast to hit the Rio Grande south of Del Rio. River’s down and they can swim the herd across. How many cattle—?
“About twenty,” the wounded Peter rasped from the boardwalk. “Oh my God, my sister.”
Brannigan looked around the crowd. “Any volunteers for posse duty? Pays a dollar a day plus expenses... that’s fifty cents extra for food and use of your horse.”
He wasn’t surprised that no one volunteered. He spotted Dr. John Hardy, a young physician who’d been in practice in Uvalde for only a month or two. “Doctor, I’m ordering you to take a couple of helpers, ride up to the Osmond place and see if there’s anyone you could help.”
Hardy grudgingly nodded that he’d go.
Brannigan stepped into the bank, dug a box of .44 Henry rimfire cartridges from his desk and retrieved his Henry .44 rifle from a corner. In one minute, he had kissed Elizabeth and little Tad Brannigan goodbye, and headed southeast with Bear. Charlie, sensing the urgency of the humans, trotted alertly behind in the heat and dust.
They swam and waded their horses and Charlie across the nearby Nueces River and, in two hours of cantering their mounts, crossed a trail of cattle being herded southeast toward the Rio Grande.
Brannigan dismounted and studied the animal tracks. “About twenty is correct, and four men on horseback, but there’s a problem here, Bear.”
Still mounted, Bear wiped his brow with a bandana and raised an eyebrow.
“These Apaches the kid described are riding shod horses. Same thing I saw the other night.”
Bear nodded. Brannigan continued, “And look at this busted horseshoe on the right front hoofprint. Whatcha bet it’s the same horse that punk we ran out of town last week was riding? They got a pretty good lead. We need to try to catch them short of the Rio Grande.”
They found a small low spot which held enough water to satisfy three horses and a thirsty dog. In ten minutes, they were on the road again.
In an hour, dusk turned to darkness, and travel across the trackless virgin prairie of the great slope to the Rio Grande was treacherous. They were dependent on Charlie’s nose and whatever strength the horses had left. The animals could manage no better than a staggering walk as early dawn showed the Rio Grande a mile ahead.
Four men, stripped to the waist and wearing Apache headbands, had just gotten the herd started into the river from the Texas bank. A small, sandy-haired figure in white, riding double behind one of the riders, was unmistakably female.
Brannigan slid his Henry from the scabbard. The .44 rimfire cartridge would not carry reliably to the river. Rifle in hand, Bear and Charlie following, Brannigan led the charge on worn-out horses.
As the distance closed, Brannigan felt the heat and force of a Winchester round passing within a foot of his head. Then another round took off Bear’s derby and a third came close enough to Charlie to cause him to jump
“Bear, they have Winchesters and know how to shoot,” Brannigan called over his shoulder. “To save the girl, we’re going to have to get as close as we can. We catch them at mid-river and this Henry will do the job.” He spurred Buck. “C’mon, big boy, only another mile.”
The four shirtless men frantically tried to push the herd further into the river, firing sporadically at the Texas lawmen. Brannigan splashed Buck into the seasonably dry Rio Grande, within 100 feet of the nearest two men, both firing wildly at Brannigan and Bear, who had fallen behind.
Sliding Buck to a halt in knee deep water, Brannigan raised the Henry, worked the lever frantically and shot the two rearmost raiders out of their saddles in seconds. The stubbier .44 Henry slugs were deadly at closer range.
The rustler carrying the girl behind him struggled his horse toward the Mexican bank. The other remaining bandit dismounted in the shallows on the Mexican side and fired several rounds from a Winchester. In the wild melee, the slender girl clambered off the rear of her captor’s animal and splashed into the river about halfway across.
Brannigan drew a careful bead on the man whose horse she’d just abandoned. He was no back shooter, but circumstances here were desperate. The .44 round took the man full in the upper left shoulder blade. Coming off the horse as if jerked by a giant hand, he splashed near the girl. He went under and didn’t come back up. The girl stood shoulder-deep in the slow-moving stream, barely able to hold her balance.
The fourth man continued to throw rapid fire at Brannigan, then spurred his horse up onto the Mexican bank. Brannigan calmly leveled the Henry and sent several rounds toward the fleeing, bobbing man. None found its mark.
Bear, encumbered by the spare pack horse, caught up with Brannigan. Dropping the spare horse’s reins, he urged his black mare into the water, and had the distraught girl behind his saddle in seconds. Her hands were bound in front with rawhide.
Brannigan pushed Buck to the Mexican side. In less than a minute, the fleeing rustler was in view. Brannigan saw in the gathering daylight, the man’s horse was the same gray gelding he’d inspected on the street in Uvalde earlier.
Brannigan was just inside rifle range when Buck stepped in a gopher hole and sent him flying, losing both his Henry and Colt in the process. Unhurt, he sprang up and dashed for the Henry, lying nearby.
But the punk was on him, his leering sneer fortified behind a .45 Colt pointed at Brannigan. Charlie lunged at rustler in the saddle just as he fired a single round at Brannigan. Brannigan rolled aside, drew his Remington derringer from his boot, and put a round between the rustler’s eyes. The man crumpled to the ground, a pool of blood quickly signaling death was imminent.
Bear, Mary mounted behind him, rode up. “You hurt, Henry Paul?”
“No.” Brannigan gathered his Colt and Henry and climbed back aboard the spent Buck, who had not been injured when he stumbled. “But we need to get this dead rustler and these cattle back to the American side before the Rurales show up.”
Brannigan located two of the men he’d shot at mid river. Both had landed in shallow, sand-bar clogged areas and had not drifted downstream. Both were dead. He was unable to locate the rider who had fallen into the deeper water and concluded he’d drifted, dead, downstream. The man he’d shot with the derringer and the two on sand bars were all Anglos attempting to disguise themselves as Apaches.
“Charlie, we just killed the punk we ran out of Uvalde, and I’d bet all three of the others were the “partner” Sinclair was expecting.”
Charlie looked at him with doleful brown eyes, as if he understood.
While Brannigan and Charlie drove the herd back across the Rio Grande, Bear got a fire started and wrapped a blanket from the pack horse around the girl. Brannigan could see the white gown she was wearing had been her only garment when she was abducted while preparing for bed. His proper nature did not allow him to ask if she’d been molested. The distraught young lady answered the question for him.
Semi-hysterical, she sobbed, “They were going to use me, then sell me to a brothel in Mexico.” Burying her face in her hands, she sat on a drift-log. “They murdered my family. And my brother...”
Tall and attractive, the suntan on her face and backs of her hands reflected she was no stranger to hard, outside work.
Brannigan dismounted to the tantalizing odor of bacon Bear was frying. Sharply, he asked the grieving girl, “Brother... Peter? What are you saying, Mary? Your brother wasn’t killed.”
She looked up in wide-eyed astonishment. Brannigan and Bear then listened to a tale neither wanted to believe.
They waited a day, resting their horses before heading back to Uvalde. Bear Smith and Mary were mutually attracted from the outset. Mary, despite the tragic end to her family, soon proved herself not only to be a vivacious young lady, but quick-witted and eternally optimistic. She quickly took charge of the camp, supervising the dressing and roasting of a deer Bear had shot.
Brannigan rounded up three of the counterfeit Apaches’ horses — fully shod and saddled — and front-leg hobbled them near the small camp they’d established, a hundred yards north of the river. With the pack animal, they then had six horses and five full saddle and bridal rigs. Brannigan and Bear tied the three dead “Indians” across spare horses and mounted Mary Osmond on the gray gelding.
Brannigan smiled at the obvious attraction between Bear and Mary. Considering her anguish, Brannigan was glad big, easy going Bear Smith was around.
* * *
The return drive to Uvalde County took two full days, even with Charlie’s expert assistance. The strange parade of men, longhorns, a girl wearing Bear’s extra shirt and trousers, dead men draped on horses, and big black dog appeared early in the morning at the edge of Uvalde. A large crowd quickly gathered. Several town people assisted in penning up the herd in a stock dealer’s corral on Main Street.
Brannigan ordered the town mortician, Hiram Smothers, to tie the dead men to boards for public display in hopes of identifying them.
Elizabeth hurried over from the bank. “Henry Paul, poor Mary Osmond has suffered an unimaginable loss and has no place to live. She’s tough and resilient, and will snap back soon enough, but she needs help. Do you suppose we could put her up for a spell while she mends?”
Bear, face flushed with enthusiasm, blurted, “Dad-gummed good idea, Elizabeth. She told me on the way back from the Rio Grande she’s about to turn 18... old enough for...well, for bein’ grown up... soon as she’s feeling better.”
Elizabeth smiled at Bear’s interest in the very pretty, young Mary, but said nothing.
After hugging Elizabeth and Tad, Brannigan learned that Peter Osmond’s wound was even more superficial than he’d first thought, although doctor Hardy was putting him up in a small room at the rear of his office. Brannigan and Bear entered the “sick room” without knocking.
“Ranger... whut...?” The youth yanked a Colt from beneath his sheet. Bear smacked him on the head open-handed, stunning him. The pistol rattled to the floor.
Brannigan asked, “Where’s your Apache headband, Peter? You might as well spill it all. Your little sister, who you never figured on seeing again, is up front in the doc’s office, getting checked out.”
“Brannigan, I didn’t—”
“Save, it, Peter. Your sister said you’d been sneaking off to join a crowd of scalawags. She recognized you as one of the fake ‘Indians’ who murdered your parents. That shoulder wound came from your own father’s Winchester.
“You quit the gang after the first day because you thought that little wound would kill you. I wondered why it took you so long to get here with the bad news.”
“Ranger, that ain’t so.” He rubbed the spot on is head where Bear had made contact.
“Save it, Peter. You helped kill your parents, sold your sister to the rustlers, and probably have been involved with rustling several herds in the territory lately. I believe, young man, you will hang.”
“You can’t prove crap,” the slender young man spat, his face now a twisted mask of anger and hatred.
Bear spoke up. “Osmond, we took a map off one of your four friends, all dead now, by the way. Showed the way to your folk’s place. You were dumb enough to write your father’s name at the bottom. We’ll prove that’s your handwriting.”
Brannigan yanked the now crestfallen boy out of the bed and handcuffed him behind. “Peter Osmond, you’re going to be a customer in our brand-new jail. You could save yourself from the noose by identifying the three dead men over at the mortuary before we lock you up.”
Bear grinned again and said, “Brannigan, you’ve come a long way from being the fair and proper youngster you were not so long ago.”
Brannigan flashed his boyish grin. “You think? This country is no place for boys, Bear. And I hope you’ll look to comfort Mary.”
With a slight smile, Bear nodded solemnly. “I’ll try to do just that, Henry Paul.”
Copyright © 2017 by Gary Clifton