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Due North From Uvalde

by Gary Clifton

Hill Country Showdown
appears in issue 706.

part 1

Chester Monroe, resplendent in his black silk suit, rose and raised a glass of red wine. “Mr. Brannigan, I’ll never be able to fully express my gratitude. Your intrepid valor in rescuing my only child, Elizabeth, and saving the stagecoach strongbox from those animals was an amazing feat.”

Elizabeth, lovely in her blonde tresses, blushed from her seat beside Brannigan in the spacious, luxurious Monroe household near the San Antonio river, at the northern edge of the city.

“Hold up your wine glass, Henry,” she whispered.

Two weeks earlier, while working as a stage driver or “charlie” as they were called, Brannigan had been driving Sawyer and Risher coach 21 from San Antonio to New Braunfels. Desperadoes had robbed the stage, murdered a passenger and fled into the Texas Hill Country with Monroe’s daughter, Elizabeth, as their prisoner.

Brannigan had mounted one of the stagecoach horses bareback and, with his giant mongrel Charlie, had followed the outlaws into the Hill Country, killed two, and rescued both Miss Monroe and the gold and currency stolen from the coach. His disciplined, modest mind would never allow him to consider the horrors of her fate had he not interceded.

The youngest of eight children, Brannigan had grown up near Eagle Pass. He was the son of a dirt farmer and part-time lay preacher. Elizabeth was a cultured young lady with three years at an exclusive school back East. She and Brannigan had felt a mutual attraction since their initial meeting.

Brannigan had volunteered — insisted, actually — that the stage line provide a freight wagon and a four-horse team to allow him to haul the murdered passenger’s body to his family home in Ardmore, Oklahoma. With the body crudely embalmed in the method of the era, the round trip had taken nearly two weeks. He had returned to San Antonio only the day before.

“A toast, Henry,” Mr. Monroe repeated.

Brannigan’s education consisted of five years’ home schooling from his now dead mother. However, he had since learned that he could read, write, and cipher with anyone. He stood and held up his wineglass. Brannigan had never tasted alcohol before.

“Thank you, sir. It’s what the stage line would have expected and no more than anyone else would have done.”

Elizabeth, being a woman and not a full part of male-dominated celebrations of the time, sat quietly, resisting the urge to spring to her feet and dispute Brannigan’s modesty. She’d seen him kill two vicious killers out of hand, cook her breakfast, then lead her safely home, lugging forty pounds of gold and currency on his saddle horn.

She knew steel when she saw it. But custom declared she remain silent. She found herself quite embarrassed to be so enamored with this quiet, solid, capable young man from a dozen social levels below her.

“Thank you, sir.” Brannigan’s mind would allow no comment more elaborate.

Monroe drained his glass. Brannigan managed a sip, carefully avoided gagging, and set the first and last drop of liquor he would ever touch back on the table.

Elizabeth, not surprised, stifled a smile. Brannigan, only twenty-four, would not be bullied into any action he didn’t see as necessary. Pure steel, she thought dreamily.

Brannigan endured another hour of formality and adoration before he politely excused himself. Quietly, he made his way out the back door. His mongrel, Charlie, was lying in the shade of a willow tree, waiting. Tomorrow he would return to his stage-driving job, and the wealthy Monroes would resume their lives of luxury. It mattered little. He did not feel entitled to affluence.

* * *

Within a week, early one evening, Elizabeth sought him out at Mrs. Wilson’s boarding house, carrying a picnic basket. “A little fancier fare than we had sitting next to the two monsters you killed to save me up in the Hill Country.” Brannigan saw her smile as irresistible.

Brannigan still had his plug army horse in the local livery. He was not surprised that not only did Elizabeth have a thoroughbred stabled there, but she was an expert rider. They ate in the shade of a mesquite tree, several miles north of town. He was nearly finished with his sandwich, the contents he couldn’t identify, when she leaned over and laid a lingering kiss on him. He returned the favor and the relationship was instantly full bore.

Two days later, Mr. Monroe summoned him to his paneled office in the City Bank in downtown San Antonio.

“Brannigan, Elizabeth says she likes you very much. Although I have my doubts that you measure up to our educational standards, I’m willing to put you to work in the bank...a matter of testing your mettle. I’ll pay your three times your salary driving that stagecoach.”

Monroe was crestfallen when Brannigan rose, shook his hand, and said, “Thank you very much, sir. I’m not sure I can or want to do what is needed in the bank. I’ll let you know.” At that, he walked out .

In three more days, two more picnics, and dozens of those soft, wonderful Elizabeth kisses, Brannigan decided he might be cut out for banking after all.

Despite his limited formal education, it was quickly apparent he was an astute businessman, who had no difficulty with complex bank matters or financial intricacies. Despite being big and muscular, his quiet, polite way was well received by bank customers.

* * *

Two years passed, and Brannigan became an expert banker. He and Elizabeth, now with the full blessing of her father, were married on a beautiful spring day at the First Methodist Church of San Antonio.

During the reception at the Monroe mansion, Mr. Monroe called Brannigan aside and made an offer. “Henry, I’m heading a committee to petition the State of Texas to form the territory around Uvalde, ninety miles to the west” — he head-gestured — “into Uvalde County, with the town of Encima to be renamed Uvalde and declared the county seat.”

Brannigan, typically, studied his potential benefactor with penetrating hazel eyes, listening without comment.

Mr. Monroe continued, “Uvalde, over there, is in a fertile, green valley with many trees and ample farm and ranch ground. They’re going to need a bank. I propose to be first in line to establish one in town and am offering you the job as bank manager. You’ve certainly proved capable enough and have treated my Elizabeth like the Queen of England.”

In the weeks it took to put up a new bank building, Elizabeth and Brannigan found a hundred-acre spread, complete with plum trees and a year-around, spring-fed stream, eight miles north of Uvalde. They built two barns, stretched a mile of barbed wire, and erected a comfortable ranch house with a white picket fence across the front. The City Bank of San Antonio provided all funding.

Brannigan stocked the ranch with a hundred head of longhorns. Charlie, after watching sheep dogs herd their flock, assumed that he could do the same for steers twenty times his size. Charlie became a farmhand, pet, expert cow shepherd, and burglar alarm, or a 100-pound, deadly security guard, depending upon the nature of a stranger’s calling. He had only to kill two coyotes and a single black wolf before word got around that the predator world should snoop elsewhere.

* * *

The First Bank of Uvalde opened at the corner of East Main and Camp, at first operated by Brannigan, now twenty-six , and Elizabeth, alone. Elizabeth acted as cashier and bookkeeper, with Brannigan assisting in both functions while acting as chief loan officer. Soon, the workload and rush of business necessitated hiring James Eastwood, a young married graduate of the San Antonio Normal School, as head teller and assistant cashier.

Brannigan and his wife rode to and from work together daily, covering the eight miles in the normal warmth — or blazing heat in summer — side by side on horseback, leaving their mounts in the local livery during the workday. On rare inclement days, they shared a one-horse buggy.

In a year, the bank had exceeded all expectations and soon became known to a certain element of society as the repository of considerable cash. Those with any malevolent thoughts could not have known that Brannigan regularly hauled sizable quantities of gold and cash to the home bank in San Antonio, keeping only the minimum necessary to operate the Uvalde operation.

Conchita’s Bakery opened across the street, offering at lunchtime freshly baked rolls and an assortment of casseroles and barbeque. On a chilly November day, Elizabeth had insisted it was her turn to walk across and bring back lunch for the three bank employees.

Brannigan saw, across the wide street, she had just stepped into Conchita’s when bad news showed up in the person of three dirty, trail-dust coated men who had hitched their horses around the side of the bank. They burst in, handguns drawn. None were wearing masks, normally a sign they were willing to shoot any witnesses. Brannigan, surprised, knew bank robbery in the territory was unusual in the early 1870’s, but the guns were real.

It’s possible to take a hard man with sand and put him to work in a bank, but you cannot take the sand out of the man. Brannigan, sitting at his desk behind the cashier, slid open his desk drawer, where his Colt .44 lay beneath a sheet of paper.

James Eastwood, standing behind the teller’s window, had not looked up instantly. The bandit in charge, a large, fleshy man in a black Stetson, stuck a Colt in his face, hammer back. Brannigan saw he could grab his Colt, duck behind his desk and dispatch all three intruders in seconds. But Eastwood, good with figures, was a clerk, not a warrior, and he was too close to three hostile six shooters. Brannigan slid the drawer partially closed.

The second robber, a slender man wearing a red neck-bandana with shoulder length hair hanging like rotten fish line beneath his Stetson, tossed a flour sack in front of Eastwood. “Fill it, stupid,” the leader said.

A third man, slender, and obviously youthful, vaulted over the counter and covered Brannigan with his Colt. “Open the valut,” the young man said in an uncertain, adolescent voice.

“It’s open.”

The youthful bandit drew another flour sack from his rear waist, tossed it on Brannigan’s desk, and said, “Then get into that vault and fill this up.”

Brannigan stood, took the sack, and stepped toward the vault. “There’s less than three hundred dollars in there.”

“Move, damn you, or I’ll put one between your eyes.” Brannigan, in his typical unflappable way, eyed the young man. The bandit wasn’t as tough as he tried to talk.

Brannigan saw he could easily disarm the inexperienced bandit, but in fear for Eastwood, he stepped into the vault and dragged what cash and coin were on shelves into the sack.

“There’s not much money in the vault, Pa,” the young bandit called out.

The older man clambered over the counter. “You wanta die, hayseed?” He pointed the Colt at Brannigan. “It’s money or your life, boy.”

“See for yourself,” Brannigan said, softly. “Ship all deposits to San Antonio daily. You just missed the haul on yesterday evening’s stagecoach, partner.”

The leader made a wild swing with his Colt at Brannigan’s head. Brannigan easily avoided the attempt.

The older man, for reasons Brannigan couldn’t follow, did not try a second blow. He turned back and said, “How much we get from the teller, Smokey?”

“Couple hundred,” the long-haired robber growled. “There’s people on the street out here. We need to take what we got and ride.”

“Don’t tell me what to do, boy.” But the older man motioned for the kid to get back over the counter, then followed clumsily.

To his everlasting horror, Brannigan saw Elizabeth, unaware of the robbery in progress, crossing the street, a napkin-covered tray in her hands.

Brannigan was close to panic as she approached. Then, the long-haired man, “Smokey,” third out the door, suddenly turned back and shot James Eastwood in the chest at point blank range. Eastwood fell to the rough wooden floor, his body twitching in death in a widening pool of blood.

Elizabeth, miraculously, did not drop the tray. Brannigan could plainly see when Smokey turned back out the door, Elizabeth’s life was in deadly peril.

With rattlesnake speed and deadly poise, he ducked behind his desk, found his Colt, and put a round in Smokey’s chest. Staggering backward, the swarthy bandit fell face-up on the wooden front bank boardwalk at Elizabeth’s feet.

Brannigan vaulted the counter and stepped around Smokey’s cadaver as the kid and the old man desperately fled north on the Rock Springs Road. Mindful of the crowded street, Brannigan drew a careful bead. Shooting at a man’s back wasn’t his style, but circumstances required decisive action.

A burst of dust from the center of the old man’s denim coat was clear evidence that Brannigan had found a target. The bandit, swayed in his saddle, the kid reached across and steadied him, and in seconds they were too far away amidst too many people to chance another round. Brannigan noted their horses were plugs who wouldn’t make ten miles

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2017 by Gary Clifton

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