Hill Country Showdown
by Gary Clifton
“Shorty didn’t show this mornin’, Brannigan. I’m hopin’ you’re up to makin’ the New Braunfels run on your own.” A regretful edge was plain in station manager Slim Garcia’s voice. Fiftyish with a brushy mustache, he was permanently stooped from years of hard labor and driving bouncing stage coaches.
Henry Paul Brannigan was twenty-four. Tall, slender, muscular, he carried a minnie ball in his left thigh, a gift from a Union sniper at Appomattox Courthouse four years earlier, on the last day of the Civil War. Big and robust, he had been serving as a mounted infantryman in General James Longstreet’s 1st Texas Infantry when General Lee surrendered.
In possession of a horse and nursing his wound, Brannigan had made his way back to San Antonio and hired on as a “charlie” or stage coach driver for Sawyer and Risher Stage Lines. Currently, he wrangled a four-horse coach from the S&R main station on the San Antonio River, four miles north of downtown, over the crude 1869 dirt trail to New Braunfels, twenty-eight miles to the north.
His routine required he work two days, alternating with two days off. His Coach 21 left San Antonio at 6:00 a.m. every other day. At New Braunfels around 9:00 pm, Brannigan and his shotgun guard met the S&R coach coming south, traded places with the driver and guard, hitched up fresh animals, and made the return trip, arriving in San Antonio next mid-morning.
Calm and soft spoken despite his youth, Brannigan tipped up the brim of his sweat-stained Stetson and said, “I hope we’re not carrying a strongbox with no guard, Slim.”
Slim glanced away, soberly. “Yep, a big one, but no way anyone could know. We got it stashed in the hidden compartment beneath your feet in the boot. You got your Henry rifle and that big Colt.” He grinned. “Hell, nobody’s gonna tangle with an oversized lug like you, kid.”
Brannigan didn’t like it, but complaining did not abide in him. He had always regarded Shorty as simply window dressing and of doubtful use in a gunfight, anyway.
“Three passengers?” Brannigan gestured toward the Austin Road out front. He’d noticed a comely young lady, an unshaven cowboy in rough clothing, and a graying dark-skinned man with shoulder-length hair, in his forties, wearing a white shirt and clerical collar. All three were sitting on the bench beneath the veranda, seeking relief from the July sun, blazing hot at 6:00 a.m.
Slim pulled a sheet of paper from a counter drawer. “The man with the collar is Doctor Fred Littlefeather, a Chickasaw Methodist Missionary out of Ardmore, Oklahoma. Guess when he come through here last year, you were off that day. Friendly, gotta bunch of them college degrees from back east. Been in Mexico on a missionary trip. He’s tryin’ to get back home for his daughter’s birthday.”
Gave the name Harvey Smith. Dunno his business. Sure looks no damned good.”
“How about the young lady?” Brannigan tried to appear nonchalant.
“Yep, mighty pretty. Name’s Elizabeth Monroe from here in San Antone. Family owns the City Bank. I was in there once and seen her workin’ at a desk behind the cashier’s counter. She’s goin’ to Austin.”
“Traveling alone, Slim? Not good.”
“Brannigan, I just sell the tickets.” He glanced at the cloth sack hanging on the left side of Brannigan’s gunbelt.
“Provisions.” Brannigan grinned.
With a trace of smile Brannigan said, “Reckon I gotta go it alone, Slim. We can’t be letting that pretty little girl walk to New Braunfels.”
A hostler, holding the left lead-mare’s bridle, led the rig around to the street from the livery.
Brannigan stepped to the front porch. “I’m Henry Brannigan, folks, your driver as far as New Braunfels. Seems we’re a crewman short today, but we’ll manage.”
“Will we be in danger?” Miss Monroe asked, soft blue eyes showing alarm.
“Only from a rough ride and trail dust, ma’am.” Brannigan locked eyes with her. With her shoulder-length blonde hair and plain blue calico dress, he thought she was the prettiest girl he’d ever seen. She was about his age. Modesty would not allow him to dwell on the subject, but he saw she was not burdened with the layers of petticoats commonly worn by ladies; risqué, but a wise move for a traveler.
Aware the strongbox had been stashed in a hidden compartment beneath the driver’s feet, Brannigan inspected the coach, finding a canteen of water in the driver’s boot, another hanging inside the coach, and a five-gallon keg strapped to the rear boot with the luggage. The keg would go to the horses at the relay station thirteen miles ahead at Frog Knot Junction unless the station horse tank happened to be full.
A huge, black mongrel, which had wandered into the station several days earlier, approached Brannigan, sniffing the air. In another day or two, Slim would routinely shoot the stray.
Brannigan tossed the giant critter a precious chunk from the loaf of bread he’d bought earlier at Alvarez’s Bakery. The single loaf in the cloth bag hanging on his gun belt was survival ration for the next day and a half, aside from whatever leftovers were available at Frog Knot or New Braunfels. The dog gobbled the treat down, then approached for Brannigan’s pat on his head.
“Big boy.” Brannigan grinned. “Think you can walk twenty-eight miles in this heat? Welcome. I believe I’ll call you Charlie, cuz’ that’s what I am, a stage-drivin’ charlie.” The dog tilted his head sideways, trying to decipher the human talk. Brannigan wondered if maybe he could.
Brannigan assisted Miss Monroe into the coach, slammed the door behind the two male passengers, climbed up to his seat, tied the eight reins in a knot for safer handling, stowed his .44 caliber Henry rifle in the box beneath his feet and, in minutes, was pacing his horses at a fast walk in the early morning Texas heat, through dust thick enough to challenge breathing.
Glancing back he said softly, “Comin’, Charlie?” The newly found friend watched the coach move a short distance, then trotted along behind. After an hour’s travel, Brannigan stopped and manhandled the dog up onto the driver’s seat beside him.
Smith, the cowboy, climbed out of the stage. “Driver, me ‘n the lady don’t want no greasy redskin in the stage with us. He either walks or rides up top with you.” His right hand rested loosely atop the Colt at his waist.
Brannigan casually studied the dirty man and considered leaving him on the side of the road one way or another. But he couldn’t just gun down or even abandon a paying customer of the stage line. Good-natured and calm, he leaned into the coach. Miss Monroe shook her head, silently disavowing any part in the minister’s ejection.
“Reverend, would you like to ride up top with me and Charlie? Better view.”
Lightfeather, no stranger to discrimination, stepped down from the coach, ignored Smith’s leer, and hauled his long legs up beside Charlie.
* * *
In just over five hours, Brannigan could see the Frog Knot relay station through the hazy heat on high ground a mile distant. When he spotted the brush piled across a narrow spot in the trail, he snatched the knotted reins in one hand and reached down for the Henry.
The two trail-dust covered men who appeared from behind a clump of mesquite trees fifteen feet ahead of the lead horses wore flour sacks with eyeholes and Stetsons pulled down to eyebrow level. Both were pointing double-barreled shotguns at Brannigan. He yanked the reins to a stop.
“Resist, driver, and you’re a dead man,” the larger of the two shouted. “Get down... And who’s your shotgun guard, there?” He pointed at Lightfeather.
“Passenger getting some air. He’s unarmed.”
Charlie growled defensively, hackles erect.
“Sit, Charlie.” Even a giant was no match against two .10-gauge scatter guns.
Brannigan climbed down. Charlie made the long jump behind him. Reverend Lightfeather followed. The smaller bandit grabbed the lead horses’ bridles.
Brannigan calculated that the angle of the coach would provide slight cover. He leaned close to the coach, fully intent on drawing his Colt .44, dispatching the bigger man to Hell, then dealing with the man holding the horses.
“Don’t do nothin’ foolish, boy.” A man’s voice rasped from inside the coach. With the nudge of a pistol against the back of his neck, Brannigan waited and, typically, said nothing. The door flew open and the scruffy cowboy, Smith, sprang down, waving a Colt revolver. Slender, dirty, with cold, watery eyes, he had the look of a back-shooter.
The cowboy stepped away and waved Miss Monroe out. She stood beside Reverend Lightfeather in swirling dust, terrified.
The larger man in the flour sack said, “Driver if you wish to live, don’t interfere. We want the box hid in that cubbyhole under your seat.” Brannigan studied the man carefully. From the voice behind the sack and movements, he realized he knew the man, a drunken tough who hung around the Alamo Street saloons back in San Antonio. He couldn’t recall the name.
“Hand over that gunbelt, big man.” The leader pointed the shotgun at Brannigan. Expecting instant death, Brannigan dropped his waist rig in the dust. The leader picked it up and stretched it around his ample belly.
The cowboy climbed up, smashed at the floor of the boot with a roadside rock, and tossed down a standard metal cash box. The bigger man, who Brannigan now saw was the boss, shot the padlock off with Brannigan’s Colt. It was brim-filled with gold coins and banknotes.
The leader pulled four flour sacks from his rear waist and ordered the cowboy to distribute the gold coins and notes among the sacks. The shot had caused the horses to stir, but the man holding the bridles managed to hold on.
Smith quickly finished the transfer to the sacks, then ominously pointed at Miss Monroe. “We needin’ to take this little heifer along. Her daddy owns that big bank back in San Antone.”
Brannigan’s heart pounded when he saw the leader nod agreement.
“Oh my God,” she sobbed. “Please, no.”
The leader slurred in his whiskey voice, “We ain’t gonna hurt you too much, honey. But I betcha your old daddy will pay good money to get you back.”
Brannigan struggled to recall the hooded man’s name. He swore inwardly that that if they didn’t shoot him down, the next time he met the robbers, things would not go so well for them.
The horses had calmed, allowing the smaller bandit holding the bridle to walk around the team and speak to the leader. “Kill him, like you said,” he said softly, but loud enough for Brannigan to hear. He had a reason to kill Brannigan. The smaller man was Shorty, his missing shotgun guard, his voice and squatty stature easily recognizable. Somehow, he’d learned of the gold and notes aboard and turned outlaw.
“Shut the hell up and go fetch the horses,” the leader replied.
Shorty disappeared into the mesquite and returned, leading three saddled horses. The cowboy tossed the canteen from the coach into the dust, the half-gallon of water converting a small patch into mud. He stepped back and smashed the water-keg on the rear boot.
The leader grasped Miss Monroe by an elbow, yanking her toward the saddled animals. Reverend Lightfeather stepped forward. “You animals can’t just abduct this young lady.”
“I had my way, big chief, your scalp would be hangin’ on a white man’s saddle horn,” the leader snarled, leveling the shotgun at Lightfeather.
The .10 gauge blast caught the clergyman in the center of his chest, slamming him backward into the side of the coach. He slid to the ground, a pool of crimson spreading in the dust.
The gunshot spooked the stagecoach animals. Shorty hurried forward to grab the bridles. Miss Monroe screamed in shock and horror. Brannigan, also horrified, turned away from the shotgun wielding leader to stare down at the dead man.
Behind him, the leader sneered. “The only good Injun’ is a dead one.”
Without warning, the masked leader struck Brannigan behind the left ear with the butt of the his shotgun. Brannigan fell in the dust, stunned, but vaguely aware of the activity around him. Charlie lunged at the gunman, who delivered a second rifle butt blow to the dog’s skull. Charlie slumped to the ground next to Brannigan.
Brannigan heard muffled men’s voices arguing and the protests of Miss Monroe as she was pulled up to ride double behind Shorty. Dimly, he saw that straddling the horse hiked up the calico dress, revealing a generous portion of lovely, stocking-clad legs. The vision doubled his determination to pursue the fleeing highwaymen.
As the three bandits rode away to the west, Brannigan struggled upright in the dust, amazed they hadn’t shot him. He vowed with deadly determination he’d live to see Shorty and the leader hanged unless he could do for them first. Retrieving his Stetson, he gingerly explored the bloody knot behind his left ear. Dizzy and in pain, he crawled up to the driver’s box.
Incredibly, in the fervor over the successful, heavy haul, the murder of Reverend Lightfeather, and abducting Miss Monroe, they had forgotten his Henry rifle and the canteen strewn at the bottom of the smashed boot. Brannigan thought, “This bunch may be beer-joint mean, but they’re dumber than dirt.”
He retrieved the rifle and canteen. He pondered taking a shot at the fleeing party but decided he might hit the girl. Shakily, he climbed atop the coach, firing two rounds into the air with the Henry and waving both arms.
From the height, he could see a pair of riders leaving the Frog Knot station, headed his direction. Knowing Brannigan’s coach was due in, they were coming to investigate the source of gunfire, and would pick up the coach and the reverend’s body, then notify the law.
Charlie began to revive, staggering to his huge feet. He stood, watching Brannigan curiously, waiting for orders.
Brannigan carried extra .44 caliber cartridges in the waist belt of his Colt pistol, now stolen by the leader bandit. Minus the two rounds he’d just fired, he was left with only five. A desperate chase of the robbers was vital, despite limited ammunition. He was morally obligated to try to protect his surviving passenger, Miss Monroe, if necessary, he vowed, through the gates of hell.
He cut the left lead mare out of her harness with his pocket knife, leaving the horse’s collar in place, and shortening her reins to allow bridal control while mounted. Hanging his canteen on one of the brass ends of the horse collar, his sack of bread on the other, he managed to clamber groggily onto the gentle draft mare’s bare back, clutching the Henry in one hand.
An accomplished tracker, and relieved the big draft animal was broken to ride, he reined her westward into the sun. Charlie trotted along behind, but in minutes, he instinctively recognized his duty, and moved out front, nose to the ground.
“Your headache as bad as mine, Charlie?” Charlie simply plodded ahead. Brannigan figured the answer was “yes.” Charlie had a score to settle, too.
The bandits were heading due west into the Hill Country of Central Texas, a rocky, sparsely forested series of rolling hills and dangerous ravines with many hiding places. The trail of the three horses was plain to see. Brannigan knew when the sun went down, sight-tracking would be nearly impossible, but Charlie’s nose wouldn’t miss a lick.
He knew the trio, amateurs in crime, would not chance traveling in the rough country after dark. He spurred the mare, who nearly bucked him off. She then continued to plod along at a stagecoach pace. They came across a small stream. The mare, despite Brannigan’s best effort to advance, drank her fill before responding to Brannigan. Charlie took the opportunity to drink also. Brannigan tossed him another chunk of bread and downed a small portion himself.
As the beautiful Hill Country sun was slipping out of sight ahead, Charlie darted forward to sniff at what at first appeared to be a bundle of discarded rags.
Up close, Brannigan recognized the body of Shorty, the top of his head blown off by a shotgun. He realized the leader had never intended to cut Shorty in on the loot. Brannigan was alive because Shorty had been a dead man from the outset.
The leader was confident that eliminating Shorty would also offset the danger of Brannigan recognizing the stubby little shotgun guard. He hadn’t calculated Brannigan might also recognize him. The outlaw had made a huge mistake.
Brannigan doggedly pushed on, fatigue gnawing steadily at him and the horse. Charlie trotted ahead, appearing fresh.
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Gary Clifton