Little Tina’s Ear
by Gary Clifton
Hombre, a Newfoundland mix the size of a calf, was stretched to his great length snoozing on the Brannigans’ front porch. He raised his head and gave a slight “stranger approaching” woof, then resumed his slumber. If the stranger had shown any sign of aggression, the normally placid pet would have instantly become 140 pounds of savage resistance.
The man on horseback shouted, “Ranger, you gotta come quick! After church and dinner, Clara Mae took a ride on Little Tina. She’s over three hours late comin’ home. We’re thinkin’ Little Tina run off, and Clara got throwed somewhere off the main road. Coyotes? Or maybe a wolf?”
* * *
By early May 1886, summer was already in full sway in the Nueces Strip on the southern edge of the Texas Hill Country. Earlier on that warm Sunday, Henry Paul Brannigan, his wife Elizabeth, and their 12-year-old son, Tad, had attended church, enduring the two-hour sermon of a new pastor.
After the parish had gone several months with no pastor, the Right Reverend Cleophus Silsbee of Muskogee, Oklahoma had been hired by the church elders. The previous preacher, Reverend Bushworthington had been pressured out of town following his discovery in an immoral tryst with a local saloon girl.
Liz Brannigan, the assertive Head of the Uvalde County Commissioner’s Court, had stirred in her pew when the strident preacher had expostulated at length on the virtues of the role of women as subservient with their proper place in the home. Accustomed to such bluster of the era, she was careful to show no reaction.
After snoozing in the boot on the drive home, Hombre jumped down in futile chase of a jackrabbit. Elizabeth smiled over at her husband and commented that the fleeing jackrabbit’s movements were as erratic as Reverend Silsbee’s eyes.
Brannigan said, “Oh, Elizabeth, have you ever met a preacher who didn’t have some odd ways? It’s not limited to preachers. Everyone has odd ways. Except me.”
His comment brought laughs from Tad and Elizabeth.
* * *
After a leisurely Sunday afternoon, the Brannigans were enjoying an after-supper, slightly cooling southern breeze on the porch of their ranch house north of Uvalde. Then Hombre had announced the visitor.
Brannigan recognized the rider as Slim, a ranch hand from the “Bar-T” Ranch, just four miles down the road. Brannigan stood, tossed his Uvalde Empire newspaper on the seat of his rocker, and motioned the wiry cowboy in the front gate. Slim led his lathered-up mare across the front yard.
“Very rare for a coyote, or even a wolf, attacking a mounted rider in these parts, Slim. But, Little Tina mighta stepped on a rattler and thrown Clara Mae.” He hurried around to the stable to saddle Buck. Hombre and Tad followed. The ranch foreman trotted up from his small house out back to help.
“Can I go, Dad?” Tad asked.
“Not this trip, son. You have school tomorrow.”
Tad, knowing any argument would be a waste of breath, helped saddle Buck in silence.
Young Clara Mae Henderson was a familiar face around Uvalde County. Clara was nine years old, and the only child of ranchers Ed and Melissa Henderson.
Often seen on one of several rural roads nearby, trotting along aboard her pony Little Tina, Clara was a highly social, friendly little girl. She often stopped at isolated ranches she passed and visited pleasantly with cowhands.
Little Tina was distinctive for several reasons. Black with a white star on her forehead, she was a cull or runt. Normally, she would have been sold off by Ed Henderson because she was too small to carry a rider on a full day’s work.
In addition, she’d been bitten on the left ear while grazing too close to a diamondback rattlesnake. Henderson had tied her head down and cut off the ear to keep the poison from spreading, leaving her a very unusual appearance. Little Tina’s small stature and ear disfigurement caused Clara to fall in love with the little horse. They became inseparable.
When Brannigan mounted Buck, he felt a strange, uncomfortable premonition. In the rough and rowdy period of the Southwest, crime was rampant, but intentional harm to a child simply didn’t happen. Clara Mae rode alone and often. Had the unthinkable befallen Uvalde County? As he rode past the front porch, Elizabeth handed him his Henry rifle and a box of .44 ammunition, her expression mirroring his own.
Despite Elizabeth’s frequent suggestions that he buy one of the newer Winchester rifles, he had kept his Henry because it fired the same Remington rim-fire cartridges as his Colt pistol. He checked to ensure the magazine was full, stuffed the cartridge box in his jacket pocket and rode off.
Brannigan and Slim, with Hombre following, made the four miles to the Henderson spread in minutes. Melissa Henderson told Brannigan that Ed and their other two hands had backtracked toward town, trying while some daylight remained, to find sign of Little Tina veering off the main road. While they were talking, Henderson and his men returned. Darkness was falling. They’d found nothing.
Brannigan rubbed an old sock of Clara’s across Hombre’s nose. In total darkness, relying on Hombre’s senses, Brannigan and the three men spent several hours combing a wide area. Again, they found no trace.
A distraught Henderson and his hands returned to the Bar-T. Brannigan rode back to Uvalde in pitch darkness. Hombre lumbered ahead, nose to the ground, following the road.
* * *
Brannigan and city marshal “Bear” Smith stood around the glowing coals of Bear’s blacksmith shop and discussed strategy. Bear rolled a cigarette.
“Could be Apaches,” Bear said. “They’d be sure to leave no sign. A girl captive is valuable.”
Brannigan shook his head. “Too far for Apaches or for any hostiles to come. I’m hopin’ she just got thrown off her pony.”
“The animal woulda gone back to the ranch, Henry Paul.” Bear nudged up his soiled derby, revealing his mop of red hair in the glow of the firepit.
“Unless she’s enough of a pet to stay by Clara’s side. Men searching in the dark won’t find Clara. I’m gonna ride back to my ranch to tell Liz we may be gone a while. Me’n Hombre will be back at daybreak. We’ll gather as many folks as we can and fan out.” At that, he was gone, Hombre nosing ahead.
By 5:00 a.m., everyone in Uvalde and most people from the nearby ranches had heard the news. Many gathered at the courthouse, armed and ready to help search. Bear brought two slabs of bacon and an iron skillet in a sack tied to the saddle horn of his black mare. Another sack bulged with grain for the horses. A long chase might be necessary. The season was hot, but streams in the area still offered enough water to manage.
Bear said quietly to Brannigan, “For once we need that no-good sheriff, King Fisher.”
Brannigan snorted. “Wasn’t our fault he got himself killed in a drunken brawl in San Antone, Bear. I haven’t missed him, and don’t think we need him now.”
Bear let the subject drop.
Brannigan ordered the telegraph operator to notify every sheriff and Ranger station within 200 miles, requesting a lookout for a scrawny black mare with no left ear. There couldn’t be many. Brannigan then organized the crowd into groups who rode off in four directions, fanning out as they went.
By noon, the sun was high and hot. Brannigan’s group, searching the prairie to the West, were hailed by a rider from Bear’s group coming from the north on a nearly spent horse. As soon as Brannigan recognized the man, he knew the news was bad.
The messenger blurted, “Great God, Ranger, Marshal Smith says come quick! We found her in a little draw about five miles north of Uvalde; dead, strangled.” The man gagged as he finished.
As he followed the man on the exhausted horse back to the north, in the distance he recognized Bear Smith’s husky frame atop his black mare.
Little Clara was face up and nude with a short section of rope twisted around her neck. Her bulging blue eyes were focused in eternity’s stare of death. The body had been mutilated by what appeared to be at least fifty shallow stab wounds.
In his youth, Brannigan would have had difficulty absorbing the atrocity. He’d have seen it, but never fully allowed the horror to penetrate his soul. Years on the job had seasoned him. This killer would pay.
Brannigan said in his usual soft voice, “Ante mortem, Bear.”
“The wounds. He abused her with the tip of a knife while she was alive. See the blood trailings?”
“I read the term in Harper’s Weekly. Rapin’, murderin’ sonofabitch,” he said through clenched teeth as he knelt beside the pitiful little form.
Bear, surprised at Brannigan’s use of profanity, knelt next to his friend and removed his soiled derby. From the corner of his eye, he could see the droplets from Brannigan’s handlebar mustache were tears, not sweat.
Aware his friend was not a man to display his feelings publicly, Bear stood and ordered the men a distance away, feigning a meeting. The tough, stoic Brannigan needed a moment of solitude.
Brannigan stood and studied the area. The men who discovered the body knew nothing of evidence. The scene was marred by horse and boot prints. “Her horse, Little Tina,” he said slowly. “Any sign of her?”
Bear said, “Yeah. I rode out that way,” He pointed north. “Looks like somebody on a bigger horse leading a smaller one. The killer musta took Little Tina. He’s ridin’ a shod horse. No Apaches involved, Henry Paul.”
Brannigan shielded his eyes from the sun to study the rough terrain to the north. “Right. Baby rape is a white man’s sin. We’re lookin’ for a two-legged coyote. We find Little Tina, and somebody will hang... If we have to take him alive.”
Brannigan insisted on personally wrapping the mutilated little body in a blanket from behind his saddle. He assigned a town man to oversee getting Clara’s body back to Smothers’ Funeral Parlor and sent everyone back to Uvalde.
His emotions in control, he said in a steady voice, “Bear, me’n you’n Hombre are gonna follow those tracks. Lack of clothes near this scene means the killer took ’em. Hombre, get up here and earn your keep.”
Hombre woofed that he was ready.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Gary Clifton