by Gary Clifton
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Uvalde undertaker Abe Smothers stood somberly before Brannigan’s desk. “Ranger, nobody’s showed up to identify the bodies of those three men y’all killed. They gettin’ so ripe, burial is mandatory.”
Texas Ranger Henry Paul Brannigan looked up at the slender, morose man. Brannigan, his oversized mongrel Charlie, and Uvalde Jailer Bear Smith had killed four Anglo cattle rustlers disguised as Apaches in a wild gun battle on the Rio Grande five days earlier.
One of the four men shot dead had been lost to the river current. They had brought back the bodies of the remaining three, also returning with twenty rustled steers and Mary Osmond, who had been kidnapped when the rustlers murdered her family.
Mary would stay with the Brannigans at their ranch until more suitable arrangements could be made. The move would bring Bear Smith to the Brannigan Ranch nearly every evening for supper, followed by long walks with Mary.
Mary, nearing her 18th birthday, was a pert, vivacious, hard-working young lady. Quick to learn or to offer a pleasant word, she showed no outward appearance of any lasting traumatic effect from her own kidnaping and the murder of her parents by her brother and his outlaw pals. She’d soon show that rather than lingering scars, the experience had left her with a solid coat of hard, pioneer American bark.
Following the crude embalming of the era, Smothers mortuary had displayed behind a front glass the bodies of the three men killed in the Rio Grande battle. The chilly weather contributed to allowing the dead bodies to remain above ground as long as they had. Although numerous passersby commented that one or more of the men looked familiar, they remained unidentified.
Late on the third day, Smothers was appearing at Brannigan’s desk in the First Bank of Uvalde and announcing that the three cadavers were overdue for burial.
Brannigan stood, his big frame towering over the black-clad undertaker. “Plant ’em in the county cemetery, Smothers. I’ll pay the bill.” Brannigan had concluded that the dead men were strangers from far away.
The following week, at Brannigan’s insistence, Judge Mayfield appointed Bear Smith full-time city marshal of Uvalde at a salary of $40 monthly. Bear proudly wore his shiny new star over his heart.
With a chilly north wind moaning through the courthouse eaves, in October 1875, Judge Mayfield presided over the trial of Mary Osmond’s brother, Peter, 19, charged with the murder of his and Mary’s parents and cattle rustling.
Bear Smith and Mary Osmond, sitting together in the courtroom, quietly whispered to each other, and exchanged affectionate smiles.
Brannigan whispered into Elizabeth’s ear, “That’s love in full bloom there, Liz. She owns twenty longhorns, her family’s ranch property, and the main barn those imitation Apaches didn’t burn. He’s a fine man and hard worker. Think maybe they could make a go of it?”
Elizabeth smiled and whispered back, “Well, living in a barn would be some improvement on that shack Bear lives in behind his blacksmith shop.”
Elizabeth — beautiful, intelligent and proper despite her extensive East Coast boarding school education — had proven repeatedly she could be a resolute, tough customer. She’d met Brannigan, then a big, clumsy 24-year-old stagecoach driver, years ago when he rescued her after she had been kidnaped by stagecoach robbers. Beneath the outwardly delicate appearance, as expected of ladies of the time, was a capable, determined leader.
Then, Peter stood, tearfully addressing the court, expressing his regret for the sorrow and pain he’d caused his family and the community. Slender and boyish, his sorrow seemed sincere.
Brannigan leaned back to Elizabeth’s ear. “The boy should have taken up acting on the stage. Then he wouldn’t have needed to slaughter his family and sell his sister. He’s one nasty little rascal.”
The jury of twelve outraged citizens sentenced Osmond to hang. Judge Mayfield, citing the defendant’s age and lack of prior criminal record, commuted the sentence to thirty years in Huntsville Prison.
Citizens in the packed courtroom sprang to their feet, shouting for the jury verdict to be obeyed. Brannigan and Bear shoved their way to the front. Brannigan shouted over the din, “I disagree with the judge, but the law’s the law folks. Everyone go home, say a prayer, and be mindful of how you raise our own.”
Fearing a lynch mob, Bear escorted the judge home to his small ranch just outside of town. Then, he, Brannigan, and Charlie stood guard over Peter with the lone jailer on duty that night. Brannigan wired San Antonio, advising of the situation. Two Rangers rode through the night from San Antonio to escort the young killer out of the territory by noon the next day. The crisis ended, at least for the time being.
* * *
Mary’s presence brought another wrinkle to the Brannigan ranch. She and Elizabeth became very close, often giggling like schoolgirls while preparing dinner or dividing other household tasks. They shared their private humor at the idea both had met their men during kidnappings.
One evening, as Elizabeth and Brannigan sat before a roaring fire in their den, Elizabeth casually told Brannigan she and Mary had attended several meetings of the Uvalde County Ladies Association in recent weeks.
Then, smiling her sweetest, she added that she and Mary both intended to take a greater interest in women’s rights, particularly in a matter generally off-limits to women of the era: politics.
He smiled, stroked his handlebar mustache, and replied, “Well, darlin’, that’s good. Women should have more to do than housework.”
Brannigan, not realizing the magnitude of the changes she was explaining, resumed thumbing through his Harper’s Weekly. Later, as time wore on, he would come to the realization that the gentle, seemingly pliable Elizabeth, was fully capable of and willing to delve into unexplored territory. But her simple words that night just bounced off his macho armor. Time would penetrate that masculine veneer.
Had he asked about the “ladies” meetings, he would have learned that many late-19th century women, outwardly contented housewives, were on their way to becoming outspoken trailblazers in an evolving society.
In the next few weeks, Brannigan and Bear remodeled the little house behind Bear’s blacksmith shop. Mary and he married and moved in.
* * *
On a chilly January day in 1876, Wilbur Sundae, the local telegraph operator, stepped into the entryway of the First Bank of Uvalde and tossed a sheet of Western Union paper onto Brannigan’s desk.
“What’s it say, Wilbur?”
Wilbur, slender and forty with a railroader’s cap covering his bald pate, shot a worried glance over his shoulder. “Comanche uprising, Ranger.”
“You’re safe here from raiders, Wilbur.”
Wilbur continued, “Up in southern Oklahoma, a band of renegade Comanches and Kiowas been hidin’ out since the government settled them all on the reservation at Anadarko. Several raids on settlements and ranches south of the Red River in North Texas.”
He held up the telegram. “Says here, ‘Two dead, houses and barns burned, cattle rustled, area in panic.’ The governor has ordered both you and Marshal Smith to catch the earliest train to Fort Belknap.”
“Wilbur, the government has treated those tribes worse than snakes. Small wonder they’d revolt. If it’s really Comanches and Kiowas, they’re probably just hungry. They send in the army and they’ll slaughter women and children on the reservation. When do they want us?”
Wilbur looked down at the telegram. “Says leave immediately via public conveyance. Horses will be provided at Belknap.”
“That’s near to four hundred miles. I’ll go tell Bear. Gonna leave Uvalde with no law.”
Brannigan and Bear exchanged sad goodbyes with their wives, and by mid-afternoon were heavily armed and on the stagecoach to San Antonio, where they’d make rail connections north. Elizabeth was fully capable of operating the bank and supervising the current teller, Fred Thompson. The world would learn shortly that she and Mary were also capable of duties beyond banking.
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Gary Clifton