Little Tina’s Ear
by Gary Clifton
Part 1 appears in this issue.
Brannigan spurred Buck, Bear following. In a hundred feet, Hombre had hit the scent on the pair of tracks to the North. The smaller tracks often turned slightly sideways as if the animal was tied to a saddle horn. Bear’s initial observation was correct. They were on the trail of Clara’s killer, and the culprit was leading Little Tina.
Brannigan moved on north. Hombre understood and darted back out front, nose to the tracks leading away from the crime scene. In minutes, Hombre found a pitiful bundle of torn, bloody clothing. Brannigan dismounted and stuffed them into his saddlebag.
Now armed with scents of both Clara and the killer’s horse, Hombre led the party northeast across open prairie. The trail suddenly veered east. Shortly, they reached the road connecting Rock Springs and Uvalde. Hombre turned north toward Rock Springs. Although the killer’s tracks were quickly lost in the dust of the well-traveled road, Brannigan was confident the scent was fresh enough that Hombre could follow.
Rock Springs, consisting of two dozen buildings and houses, was thirty miles north. Citizens widely traveled there to soak in the numerous natural springs in the area. The water, heavy with minerals, was thought to provide therapeutic relief for aches and pains.
Bear said, thoughtfully, “Henry Paul, there’s been a carnival from up north spending the winter up at Rock Springs the past two years. Maybe they haven’t left winter camp for the road yet.”
Brannigan nodded. “Now that you say it, I’d forgot that bunch of grifters and thieves. I ran three or four of them out of Uvalde last month. As I recall, there’s about twenty of them that stay the winter.”
Bear rolled a cigarette. “And steal anything not nailed down. Reckon some of them would actually kidnap a child, or worse? A one-eared pony might make for a carnival attraction.”
Brannigan studied the terrain to the north. Irregularly dotted with clusters of massive live oak trees, the land was mostly open with a few ranches scattered sparsely along the trail. “I think the killer veered off the Rock Springs Road to the northwest, killed Clara, then angled cross-country to find his way back to the road?”
Bear studied the ground. “Maybe she ran from him. His bigger horse finally outran Little Tina.”
“You don’t suppose he’s got a connection in Uvalde, Bear? Maybe lives there?”
As the sun approached the western horizon, they came upon a cluster of wheeled, roofed, wagons, all painted in gaudy colors blaring the name of “Wilcox Brothers’ Carnival.” They were parked a quarter mile from the little community of Rock Springs. A make-shift, rope corral behind the wagons held about thirty horses. The distance and fading light made identification of individual animals impossible.
“Permanent residents up here don’t like these carnies, Henry Paul.”
About twenty or more people, mostly men, were seated on chairs or the ground around a roaring fire near the wagons. A slab of beef was roasting on a makeshift spit. Several stood as the two lawmen approached.
“Texas Ranger,” Brannigan said. “Who’s in charge?”
A grizzled, fortyish man with a full graying beard stepped forward. “I’m Harvey Wilcox, Ranger, and we didn’t steal that beef we’re barbecuing.” He was larger than either Brannigan or Bear, themselves both big men.
Bear grinned and dismounted. “Sounds like the guilty dog barking, mister. We didn’t come to ask about rustling. But since you raised the subject, where did you get that beef?”
A second man, closely resembling the first stepped up. “Bought it from that ranch y’all musta passed a half mile back south there.”
Brannigan swung down off Buck. “And you’d be...?”
“Henry Wilcox. Me and my brother here own the carnival.”
Brannigan said, an edge in his voice, “We’ve had a small girl murdered down by Uvalde. Killer stole her pony, a small black mare with a white star on her forehead and missing her left ear. We suspect a man leading that pony mighta rode through here.”
Harvey Wilcox said, “Just past daybreak this morning, a man rode by here on a gray mare, leading a smaller, black animal.”
Bear asked, “He say where he was headed?”
“Nossir,” the big man answered, kicking in the dust. “Watered his two horses in that stream y’all jes’ crossed, didn’t say nothin’, and headed north. There ain’t much up that way.”
Brannigan said, “We’re gonna inspect your livestock. Just in case that pony mighta wandered in with your remuda.”
Henry Wilcox put a restraining arm out. “Whoa. We ain’t stole nuthin’ and you ain’t gonna—”
Bear, still infuriated by the gory remains of little Clara he’d witnessed, buried his hammy fist in the center of Wilcox’s bulging stomach.
The big man doubled over, then fell backward, landing in a sitting position in the dust. Several men from the fireside surged forward. Brannigan whipped out his Colt. “Keep comin’, and some of y’all won’t see tomorrow.”
With Henry Wilcox now rolling in empty-diaphragm agony, Bear also pulled his Colt. Although he and Brannigan were outnumbered ten to one, Hombre, who had followed the suspect’s trail a hundred yards further north, came on a run, evening the odds considerably. The crowd melted backward.
Bear said, “Folks, we understand how carnival people might want a one-eared horse. If you bought the black pony, produce her now or the dog is gonna have some men for supper.”
“She’s tied to a tree back by the stream y’all just crossed,” groaned Wilcox from the ground. “I paid four dollars for her and got a bill o’ sale. Men, I didn’t know nuthin’ ’bout no murder. The man said he was headin’ north to his home in Oklahoma.” He struggled to remain sitting upright on the ground.
Brannigan turned to his saddlebag and counted out ten silver dollars. “I’m buyin’ the one-eared mare. I’ll grant you it could have been an honest mistake, buyin’ her. We’ll leave her with y’all and pay for your trouble and what keep she needs. He leaned close to Harvey Wilcox and said softly, “She needs to be here when we ride back through, understand?”
Wilcox nodded vigorously.
Bear helped Henry Wilcox to his feet. “Sorry, mister,” he said.
“Damn,” Henry Wilcox clambered to his feet. “Like getting’ kicked by a mule. “We’ll take the ten dollars and make sure the black pony is safe. I thought you was gonna arrest us. Can we offer you men a portion of roast beef?”
“Only for the dog,” Brannigan said as he mounted Buck.
A woman came forward with a double-fist sized slab of partly cooked beef fat and tossed it to Hombre. He gobbled it down on the run and then led Brannigan and Bear further north. The night air grew chilly and pitch black, but Hombre’s nose was steady. For several miles he loped along, forcing Brannigan and Bear to canter their mounts. Both had been sleepless for thirty hours.
* * *
At around midnight, they stopped beside a small spring, watered and fed the horses, and all three snacked on fried bacon. In an hour or so, they spurred their tired horses behind Hombre. As the first hint of dawn showed in the east, Hombre stopped, turned back, and growled.
Brannigan stopped, heard nothing, then urged Hombre ahead. Soon he stopped again and could hear the definite fall of horse hooves ahead. By pushing their mounts and Hombre keeping them on the road in the dark, they’d overtaken a rider. With no way of knowing who he was, they spurred their horses up and soon could see the form of a rider ahead. In the gathering dawn, the horse appeared gray. Brannigan’s pulse quickened
“Texas Ranger, mister. Stand and be questioned or face the consequences. Any ideas about busting a cap back this direction will be your last.”
“Don’t shoot,” came the reply. “How do I know you’re the law?”
“Either trust an honest man or I’ll shoot you off that horse.” Brannigan slid his Henry rifle from its saddle scabbard.
Suddenly, the rider spurred his horse and veered off-road into the open, rocky scrub, quickly disappearing in the limited light. Brannigan, unwilling to chance a shot at a citizen who might be genuinely afraid, shoved the Henry back into his scabbard. He and Bear pursued.
“Hombre can find him if he runs all the way to Oklahoma,” Bear said.
In less than a mile, the sounds and grunts of a man and horse tumbling were clear. The horse had missed his step. Brannigan called Hombre back. Bear and he spurred their horses toward the downed man. The horse had regained its feet, but the rider was down, gasping for breath. Brannigan and Bear dismounted. “Watch him, Hombre,” Brannigan said, giving an order that was unnecessary.
“Don’t shoot, Brannigan. Have mercy! I’m injured.”
Brannigan, taken aback that the man had called him by name, realized he recognized the voice. Unable to put a face to the voice, he leaned down to study the man’s features in the increasing daylight. The man struggled to stand. Brannigan, not given to undue emotion, was astonished.
“Reverend Silsbee! Great God, man, you killed little Clara Mae Henderson?”
“It’s not how you think, Brannigan, my son. I have this illness. Satan has absorbed my soul.”
“You killed Clara, you damned animal. Then stole a scrawny, one-eared horse. And I’m not your son.”
“She tempted me, Brannigan. I saw her little panties... and I couldn’t stop.”
“Couldn’t stop?” Brannigan spat. “Why steal her horse?”
“It was divine,” whined Silsbee, a slender little man with a scraggly goatee.
“Four dollars’ worth of divine?” Brannigan felt he might be sick to his stomach.
Bear stepped over to the gray horse and grabbed his reins. In the dim light, Brannigan saw the knife only when Hombre barked a warning.
Silsbee’s thrust slit Brannigan’s trousers on the front of the upper left thigh. Brannigan caught his wrist, twisted the knife away and back-handed the sniveling man. Hombre sprang on him, pinning him to the ground. Brannigan called him off.
“My God, have mercy!” Silsbee repeated.
“Is that what Clara said as you stuck her with that knife, Preacher? I think you’d better call for help from somebody a mite closer. I doubt the Almighty likes you any more than I do.”
Silsbee grabbed the knife from the ground and lunged at Brannigan’s legs. Brannigan’s .44 roared and put a round downward through the top of Silsbee’s head. “See if Satan’s possession leaks out that hole, you sorry heathen.”
Bear tied the gray horse to Buck’s saddle horn. Then he and bear slung the dead man over the gray horse’s saddle. Bear ripped open Brannigan’s trouser leg.
“Henry Paul, he more missed than hit. The knife just barely scratched you.”
“I wonder if I had to shoot him.”
“Well, by God, if you hadn’t, he woulda done more than scratch you on his second attempt. Henry Paul, I wish I’d plugged him myself.”
Tired men and tired animals headed south. Bear rolled a cigarette and grinned at Brannigan as he struck a match. “We’re not having much luck with preachers in Uvalde, Henry Paul.”
Brannigan chuckled. “They say third time’s a charm.”
* * *
In five hours, they’d recovered Little Tina and her saddle from the circus encampment. Near dark, after dumping Silsbee’s body at the Smothers’ funeral parlor, they were soon surrounded by inquiring citizens. Both men and their horses were exhausted. Hombre fell instantly asleep on the boardwalk.
When Bear explained the identity of Clara’s murderer to a skeptical crowd, several walked over to Smothers place to identify the body themselves. Many thanked and praised Brannigan and Bear. Bear wearily led his mare across the street to his home. Brannigan headed for his ranch.
While he rode home, Hombre trotting along behind, Brannigan weighed the apprehension of Silsbee at length. Could he have taken the man alive? Possibly, if he didn’t receive a crippling knife wound. Monster like that needed killing, he reluctantly concluded. No chance of gettin’ loose to do it again. Henry Paul Brannigan’s attitude had come far in his years as a Texas Ranger. He vowed to pray on the matter but reliving putting a .44 ball into Silsbee’s brain brought no feeling of guilt.
When he turned into his gate at home, Elizabeth and Tad were sitting on the front porch, waiting for him. Brannigan jumped down from Buck and led him across the front lawn. Elizabeth ran out and delivered a lingering hug and kiss. Tad, a head taller than his mother, hugged both.
“Dad, what happened to your pants?”
“Tore ’em on a barb-wire fence.” He grinned.
Elizabeth laughed. “Not very romantic, but I kept some steak and collard greens warming for you.”
He lifted her in his powerful arms. “Well, darlin’, food first, then you. That romantic enough?” He glanced down at Tad, hoping he was too young to understand.
Hombre flopped down on the front porch.
Elizabeth studied his eyes. “Heard you caught the monster who murdered Clara Henderson?”
Brannigan nodded. “Not sure you want to hear about it.”
She studied his expression and saw the horror he felt. She knew he was attempting to cover what Henry Paul Brannigan saw as weakness: revulsion at one of the many terrible things life had brought him. She decided she’d wait until he decided to discuss it. She knew “until” would likely never happen. No problem; she’d hear about in town.
Tad piped up. “Dad, next time you go off on a manhunt, I can help,” his softly resolute tone strangely similar to his father’s.
Elizabeth looked up at Brannigan. “I believe he could, Henry Paul. He certainly handled the two jailbirds who waylaid him at Hang Tree Gulch.”
“He’ll make a fine hand, Liz,” Brannigan replied. “But not quite just yet.”
Liz asked, “How old were you when you went off the Civil War?”
“Uh, don’t actually recall.”
Hombre raised his head and woofed.
“I think Hombre understands us,” Tad said. “He’s agreein’ with me but just don’t have the mouth parts to talk.”
“Doesn’t have, Tad,” Elizabeth corrected. Brannigan and Elizabeth exchanged a long glance. Both smiled.
Tad grabbed Buck’s reins and led him toward the stable.
Brannigan’s smile morphed to dead-level serious when Elizabeth said, “Henry Paul, have I mentioned I’m planning to run for the office of territorial representative to Austin this fall?”
“Good heavens, Liz, Bear says his wife is makin’ noise about another run at mayor of Uvalde. Now you’re aiming for statewide office. All that could cause a man to wonder if women weren’t trying to run the whole shebang. One big old blacksnake crawls into the meetin’ hall, and all the ladies would scatter like a covey of quail.”
Her smile was honeysuckle sweet. “Oh, we wouldn’t try to run everything, Henry Paul. We’d still need men around to do heavy lifting and stand watch for snakes and the like. Do you realize that when I get elected governor of Texas, I’ll be your boss?”
Laughing, he swept her up in his arms. “Darlin’, I thought you already were.”
Copyright © 2020 by Gary Clifton