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Ambush at Hang Tree Gulch

by Gary Clifton

Part 1 appears
in this issue.


Carrying both rifles, Tad led Hombre back toward the fugitives’ horse, using the rocky terrain to shield them from any gunfire the man atop the rocks might send their way. Tad approached the dun-colored mare slowly.

In case he couldn’t catch Thunder, he’d need the animal. On close inspection, he saw the lathered mare had been ridden nearly to death. Suddenly, a much larger surprise: lying in the dust behind a clump of mesquite bushes was a girl of no more than 15, wearing only a nightgown and bound hand and foot.

“Help me! In the name of God, help me!” she sobbed. Her gown, originally white, was filthy with trail dust. Grime covered her face. Her stringy hair, possibly brown, was tangled and mud-encrusted.

Tad cut the ropes with his Barlow knife. He then noticed a canteen on the ground a few feet away. Although Hombre and he were both thirsty, he handed the vessel to the girl. Still sitting in the dust, she drained the meager contents.

Tad, ever courteous, asked softly, “Are you okay miss? What happened?”

“Kidnapped. My daddy is the sheriff of Saline County. These two broke out yesterday evening, shot my daddy’s deputy, stole that mare there and some guns and took me hostage. Are they still down there in the brush?” She was clearly terrified.

“Uh... well, ma’am, one of ’em is dead, just out of sight.” He pointed in the direction of the man he’d killed. “The other is up in those rocks. And he’s got a six-gun. Any idea how much ammunition he’s got?”

“He grabbed the deputy’s gun belt. I saw it had ten or so cartridges in the bullet loops.”

Tad, culturally influenced by both his parents and reinforced by local customs, would be unable to ask intimate questions. Besides, he wasn’t sure what, exactly, evil men did to innocent women. Instead, he asked, “Did these men... harm you?”

“They put hands on me and said they were going to have their way when they got clear of the territory.”

“Where were they going... or tryin’ to go? Y’all are a far piece from Saline County.”

“Mexico. They rode poor Bessie there near to death, then they saw you coming. I thought they’d killed you.”

“Me, too.” Tad smiled boyishly. “And there’s still one up in those rocks who intends to.”

As if the remaining killer had heard, the sharp explosion of a handgun cracked from above. A bullet hit a boulder several feet away.

The girl sprang up from the dust and grabbed Tad in a bear hug. “My God,” she screamed.

“Miss, he can’t hit us, because he can’t see us. Stay down and we’ll ease on away from him.”

“My name is Julia.”

“Uh, they call me Tad. Now keep your head down.” He whistled, then again. Thunder’s whitish blonde face appeared in less than a minute.

“Miss... uh, Julia, Thunder can’t carry us both. We can lead the mare, but she’s too spent to ride. I live six or seven miles back toward Uvalde. I can walk, and you can ride Thunder. My father is a Texas Ranger. He’ll come back and deal with the killer up in those rocks. We gotta get started. There’s a little spring in the rocks not far down this draw.”

“Tad, you said one of these two is dead back the way you came. Is he the one with the long yellow hair?”

“No, dark hair, dark beard. But he’s no threat. Not now, anyway.”

“The other one, the one with yellow hair is an animal. He’s the leader. The dark-haired one called him ‘Hawk’. We’re gonna have to watch out. He’s crazy enough to chase us clear to Uvalde on foot.”

Tad raised his arms, a rifle in each and nodded to Hombre who seemed fully mobile despite his bullet wound. “Me ’n Hombre will do what we can. But you’re right. We need to clear out. Hombre knows that outlaw is up in those rocks, and he wants to go after him.”

He dug out two of his biscuits stashed in Thunder’s saddlebag, handing one each to Julia and Hombre. Both downed the snack quickly. He’d save the other two for later... if later came. Pulling off his jacket, he handed it to Julia.

Tad helped Julia get mounted on Thunder, then handed her the reins of the spent mare. “Lead her and hold tight the reins, miss.” With Tad and Hombre trotting out front, they had soon moved a mile away from the ambush location. Tad found the spring, and all got their fill of water.

The terrain around the spring lent well to concealment, but the little group was handicapped in trying to make any speed. Tad sent Hombre sniffing the trail ahead, confident the dog would take them home. He stayed twenty yards to the rear, carrying the Winchester over one shoulder, his .22 on the other.

They covered nearly another mile, but not nearly as quickly as Tad would have liked. Soon, they would break out into more open prairie, making approach from behind more difficult. Now, they were still vulnerable.

Ahead, he saw the blur and a flash of yellow hair emerge from the brush and yank Julia from Thunder’s saddle. Tad saw it was Thunder the man was after. He dashed closer.

The man held Thunder’s bridle in one hand and fired a shot from an old Colt revolver at Tad with the other. At the explosion of the pistol, Thunder broke free. The man stumbled and again fired the pistol at Tad. The round kicked up dust between Tad’s feet.

Tad, still a green kid who had little direct experience with hostility of any kind, should have turned and run. Henry Paul Brannigan’s son lacked the mechanism to retreat.

He dropped his .22, brought the Winchester to bear on the man’s chest, now twenty feet away, and squeezed. The click of an empty chamber sounded with terrifying reality. Tad saw the threat of death in the man’s expression. Strangely, he again felt no fear. He thought of his mother again. He jacked the Winchester, levering a round into the chamber as the gunman fired again.

As the bullet passed by Tad’s left ear, he felt the sensation of a huge, blazing-hot bird flying past. He snapped off a shot and was shocked but relieved to see the Winchester round strike the man in the center of his chest. The force knocked the gunman backwards into the dust. He kicked several times and lay still.

The entire exchange had taken two seconds, time for Hombre to turn and throw himself onto the shooter just as he hit the ground.

Tad grinned. “What took so long, Hombre?”

Julia rushed up and again bearhugged young Tad.

“For pity’s sake, Julia, turn me loose. For all we know there’s another one hiding in the bushes.”

She planted a wet kiss on his cheek. “My hero, you’ve wiped out the threat. There were only two.”

Tad was standing at trail center, considering how to catch his palomino a second time when the sound of pounding horse hoofs drifted in. He had one round left in the Winchester, plus several for his .22. Again, he had no intention of quitting without a fight.

Tad pushed Julia behind a clump of buckbrush. “Julia, go further into the brush and stay hid, no matter what. Step mindful of rattlesnakes.”

Dropping to a knee, he leveled the Winchester at the riders approaching. He remembered his father’s advice: “Kill the first one. Maybe the rest will change their minds.” He waited, ready to use the last round in the Winchester before going to his .22.

“Henry Paul Brannigan, Jr., what on earth are you doing? Stop pointing that rifle at us!”

Through the dust, he recognized his mother’s voice from atop one of the approaching horses. Then he recognized his father’s big form riding hard at her side. He lowered the rifle. “Just taking a little target practice, Mama. It didn’t quite work out the way I planned.”

Elizabeth dismounted, and for the third time, Tad got a female bear hug. This time, he didn’t object. Mama always knew best.

His father dismounted and knelt over the dead man. “Just got the telegram, Tad. This one and another inmate broke jail last night, I was worried they might come this way.” He gestured to the dead man. “Good Heavens, Tad, from the telegram description this is Nathan ‘Nighthawk’ McGraw. The telegram says he’s gunned four or five men.”

“Like you always say, Dad, take your time and hit what you shoot at. He hurried his shots and missed every time.”

“Sir” — Julia emerged from the brush and spoke to Brannigan — “there’s another one dead on the trail about two miles or so back. Tad is wonderful!”

Branigan said, “Telegram says a posse from Saline County is headed down this road. The sheriff will be along soon. If that’s your father, miss, he’ll be very glad to see you.”

Julia beamed, and Elizabeth gathered her to her side.

“Dad, Hombre’s been shot.”

Brannigan examined the dog. “Only a scratch, Tad. We’ll get him back to the ranch. Soap, water, and a little horse liniment will fix him right up.”

Tad looked sadly at his mother, his lower lip showing the slightest of quiver. “Mama, I’ve killed two men.”

Elizabeth peered back along the trail. “Appears you did what you had to do, Tad. You stood your ground. I would have expected nothing less.”

Brannigan said softly, “She’s right, son. If you had run, they woulda shot you in the back.”

Elizabeth hugged Tad again. “Thank God you weren’t hurt.”

Henry Paul Brannigan, Jr., 12-year-old slayer of two hardened killers, considered what his father would say in reply. “Yes, ma’am,” he said softly.

Copyright © 2018 by Gary Clifton

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