New Guns in the Valley
by Gary Clifton
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
Elizabeth walked around the corner, pale, ashen, and terrified. “You realize, Henry Brannigan, you just ginned up a blood feud with one of the most dangerous men within five hundred miles. He won’t back down.”
Brannigan gave her his best “don’t squeeze the pregnant mother too hard” hug. “Liz, would you have had me hand over the cash? We had a robbery not long ago. Somebody needs to show some resistance, or these men will rule this land.”
She looked up, admiringly, but frightened. “Does it have to be you, Henry Paul Brannigan?”
“No, Liz, there are plenty of honest men in this territory.”
In minutes, word of the King Fisher incident ignited the town of 400 like a Fourth of July picnic. The bank filled with customers, citizens, and the morbidly curious.
“Did you really face down King Fisher?” a bonneted lady asked.
“No,” Brannigan replied politely and truthfully. “Charlie did.” The conflict earned Charlie more head pats than he’d normally receive in a month and, in his dog’s mind, all he’d intended was to help Brannigan in time of need.
Uvalde now had a Texas State District Judge, but no lawman. Graying and bent, Judge Elwood Mayfield called Brannigan aside in the circus still ongoing in the bank lobby. “Henry, the governor has authorized me to appoint you as a Special Texas Ranger. It’s 1875, and Uvalde needs a lawman with backbone.”
“Judge, I have this bank to—”
“It’s a part-time thing, Henry. State of Texas will pay you... uh” — he glanced at a sheath of papers — “ten dollars a month, plus two dollars for every arrest, one cent a mile for transporting prisoners over to San Antone to jail, plus per diem of one dollar daily for use of your horse and weapons when you have Ranger duty.”
Brannigan grinned. “Judge, it isn’t that I want the job so much, I’m just impressed you know I finally swapped off my old Civil War nag for that big bay gelding you’ve seen me ride. That army horse couldn’t have made it to San Antone if he rode part way in a stock wagon. But Buck — my bay — sure could.”
“That mean you’ll accept the job, son?”
“Well, heck, judge, somebody’s gotta do it.” He laughed long and loud, a very uncharacteristic reaction for Brannigan. “Heck, Judge, I haven’t killed a man in several months.”
The wizened old man stared at him, baffled.
“I’ll do it, judge, but only on the understanding that San Antone sends deputies out to pick up any prisoners I might be holding. In view of the recent violence, I absolutely refuse to leave Elizabeth, my home, or the bank unattended.” He didn’t feel the need to explain Elizabeth’s delicate condition.
* * *
As Elizabeth and Brannigan rode home that evening in the gathering twilight, she laced into him. “What if King Fisher and his stooges burn our ranch? What if he back-shoots you? What if he robs my father’s bank and shoots someone? Henry Paul, the baby and I need you. You get yourself killed at 26 years old, and I don’t think I could go on living.”
Charlie, trotting ahead hoping to spot a jackrabbit to chase, sensed her anger and stopped to watch her closely.
“Darling, Liz, do you think had I shrunk from standing up to these men, they’d be any less likely to do any of those things? You must know men like King Fisher shy away from strength a hundred times before they fear weakness. If King fisher comes for me — and I doubt he will — I’ll do what I have to do when the time comes.”
Weeks passed and general monotony again became the daily centerpiece of Uvalde. Despite Elizabeth’s protests, Brannigan moved two heavy wheeled vaults in front of Elizabeth’s desk, then slid his own desk further into a far corner. When any customer entered the bank, he made certain the path to his Colt was clear. He hid the Colt beneath a sheet of paper on his desk, if the visitor was a stranger.
Spring had surrendered to the sweltering hot Uvalde summer, and the tension had lessened greatly. Elizabeth, now showing slightly, had ridden one morning with Brannigan from their ranch to the bank, Charlie trotting along behind. He had taken his usual day-long resting place beneath a mesquite tree near the back stoop of the bank. Brannigan and Elizabeth were busy inside.
The shotgun blast could be heard all across the small community. Elizabeth plunged out the rear door, followed closely by Brannigan. The buckshot had missed Charley - almost. His water bowl shattered two feet from where he’d lain, a single pellet had hit him in the left front foot. The huge animal lay, licking at his wound.
Brannigan knelt. “He’ll survive just fine, but he’s not going anywhere fast any time soon.” He turned to teller Fred Thompson. “Get him to the vet over at the livery barn. Don’t let him try to follow me.”
Elizabeth gasped, “Follow you? My God, Henry Paul, no!”
“Shooter has to be close,” Brannigan spat, estimating the short range of a shotgun. In the distance, the cloud of dust already east of the Leona River bridge was clear indication that pursuit needed to follow in that direction. In ten minutes, a grain sack, two canteens, and his .44 Henry in the scabbard, Brannigan was galloping Buck across the Leona bridge.
He calculated the shooter had about three miles lead. He wagered his life that Buck, black mane flowing in the Texas heat, would answer to the challenge.
In five miles, he learned the chase had been a trap. As he rounded a windswept rise in the trail, his way was blocked by five riders, all with bandanas pulled over their faces, all holding Winchesters.
Reining up at fifty feet, he pulled his Henry from the scabbard and stood his ground, quietly waiting.
The rider in the center called out. “We got rid of that damned vicious animal of yours, Brannigan, and now we’re about to do the same for you. Then we go see about that juicy wife of yours.” The voice was King Fisher’s.
Brannigan was no gunfighter, but he knew plenty about shooting. As a Union army sniper and after killing four men since the war, he had learned much. Gunfighters and their quick draws were designed for fights across a poker table, not at fifty feet. He full knew that the key to success was to hit what he shot at, without undue haste or waste of ammunition.
“You missed the dog, Fisher.”
He raised the Henry and had shot the two men on Fisher’s left out of their saddles in two heartbeats. The other three scattered, firing wildly at him. A Winchester, .30-.30 round grazed his right ear.
He drew a bead and fired. The third rider came off his horse as if he’d been pulled by a rope.
As he whirled Buck sharply about, the big horse stepped on a rock, throwing Brannigan roughly to the ground and separating him from his Henry. When he attempted to regain his feet, he realized his left leg was broken below the knee, making movement impossible. His Colt in hand, he lay prostrate in the dust, awaiting instant death.
The two remaining riders approached cautiously, confident there was no hurry to finish the helpless Brannigan. He emptied his Colt, futilely hoping to wing one of the two assailants before they got close enough to kill him. He lay, awaiting the end, wondering why he was not afraid.
As they came within kill distance, both lowered their bandana masks. King Fisher’s handsome face looked down, flashing a triumphant expression of victory. Brannigan recognized the second rider as the man Charley had subdued along with Fisher in the bank lobby weeks earlier. His nasty leer mirrored Fisher’s.
“Well, lawman gunfighter,” Fisher snarled, “here’s a little payback for the Sonora Kid and that damned dog chewing us up in your little bank.
Both men leveled Winchesters at Brannigan.
Brannigan recognized the sounds of two rifle rounds inbound, the first blowing a small hole in the companion’s denim shirt just below the heart, exiting between his lower shoulder blades with a gush of blood and dead outlaw. The second, slightly off-center, caught Fisher in the left shoulder. The companion fell near Brannigan, dead beside his lathered horse. Fisher’s Winchester flew from his hands, as he wheeled his horse and spurred the animal for freedom.
A second Winchester round missed, taking off Fisher’s Stetson. As he fled, Brannigan saw the fleeing killer was bleeding profusely from his shoulder wound.
Brannigan lay helpless, near the dead assailant. The dead man’s horse had run off, but Buck had wandered back, standing over Brannigan. He spotted his Henry lying fifteen feet away, but the pain in his leg made reaching it impossible. A lone rider approached and again, Brannigan waited for death.
The rider spoke in a youthful voice. “Get yourself in a little tight, Mr. Banker?” He dismounted and kneeled to examine Brannigan’s broken leg. “Mr. Brannigan, we’ll have to use mesquite limbs for splints, then I think I can get you back on your bay, there.” He knelt beside Brannigan, cradling his Winchester in his left arm. This is not a bad break, although I know it’s painful.”
“You a doctor?” Brannigan asked. He’d seen this young man somewhere before.
“No, sir, you ran me down for robbin’ your bank, fronted me enough bank money to pay off our mortgage, and buried my father proper last year. “
“Great God, you’re the kid who robbed my bank.” Brannigan, seldom flustered, was flabbergasted.
“Yessir, name of Wilkens. Took your advice, sorta. Instead of Montana, I went up to Wyoming and dadgummed if I didn’t hit a gold vein the third day I was up there. I was comin’ back to repay your money when I saw you had got yourself in a fix. Looks like four of ’em are dead. Mr. Brannigan, I sure am sorry I let that fifth one get away, sir.”
“I know where to find him, son. Or at least who he is.”
“Well, Mr. Brannigan, it’s gonna be dark soon, and it gets cold in this country when the sun goes down. I’ll start a fire and find some splints. I gotta slab of bacon in my kit. We can eat a bite and I’ll get you back to Uvalde. Sir, you suppose the law is looking’ for me back down there? I’m ready to answer.”
Brannigan shifted so the badge pinned on his shirt under his coat didn’t show. “No worries, young fella. I’m certain the law has no business with you today.”
Copyright © 2017 by Gary Clifton