Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Stuart Brannon's Final Shot

Stuart Brannon's Final Shot
Center Point Pub; Lrg edition (March 2012)
Stephen Bly

Chapter 1

Sunday afternoon, June 11, 1905,
south of Portland

“I thought you was dead.” The words rumbled out of some deep, dark pit of tales told at late night campfires and smoky saloons. Thick drops of dirty sweat careened down the bearded man’s face. A ripped-in-shreds shirt sleeve exposed a long, jagged old scar on his left arm. Bloodshot brown eyes glared into the future as if forecasting bad news. Very bad news.

“A common mistake.”

A faded, red bandana brushed the man’s bulging neck. His bronzed face held to the tight expression of a man looking for an advantage. “No foolin’. Argentiferous Jones said he shot you dead over a poker hand in Bisbee. I believe you was packin’ three queens.”

“He was wrong.” Every eye in the dining car watched the trigger of Stuart Brannon’s drawn Colt .44 revolver, ready to witness a sudden blast.

“I can see that now and would like to be given a chance to atone for my erroneous assumption.”

“I’m sure you would. You stopped this train on a tall trestle in the middle of a river, cold-cocked the conductor, stole the possessions of all the passengers and whatever else of cargo you found on board, and in the mix scared the women, children, and most of the men near to death. Out West a man can hang for such offenses.”

He tried to straighten his bow-legs, puffed out his huge chest. His good eye glared at Brannon like the headlight of a locomotive. “What do you get out of this? Surely you don’t expect to shoot me in front of these delicate ladies. What if I just put down my pistol and . . .”

Brannon glared right back. “And what do all of us get out of that?”

The man croaked out the words. “A clear conscience?”

“Already got one.” Brannon shoved the muzzle closer to the man’s ripped ten-gallon-hat with the creased crown and molded brim.

“What if I return the money and goods to all these fine folks on the train?”

“That’s a start.”

He dropped a leather sack to the carpeted floor, stepped back, and raised his hands. “What else can I do?”

“Hike down the track to the next town and turn yourself in to the sheriff for robbing this train.”

“You mean, turn myself in on my own accord?”

“Yep. You can do it. We’ll just ride on up ahead and let them know you’re on your way.”

“No one does that, especially Slash Barranca.” He studied Brannon to watch for the reaction.

Brannon didn’t blink. “Well, Slash, here’s your chance to stand out from a crowd of no-goods.”

“So, you know who I am?”

“Nope. Never heard of you.”

“Are you sure you’re the original Stuart Brannon?”

“The real question is, do you trust that I’m Stuart Brannon? If you aren’t certain, then make your move and see what happens. And if you still wonder, then say goodbye to these nice folks. I’m pullin’ this trigger right now. So, what’s your choice?”

The man looked over the crowd. His gaze stopped at two men in their fifties in brown suits. One of them glared a kind of warning. The other looked down. Brannon wondered if Barranca was going to make an appeal to them. But his chin drooped to his chest and his words blurted out with such force, the windows almost rattled. “Yeah, you’re Brannon, all right.”

“Good. Leave the stash, your gun and your boots in the car. Then, start walkin’.”

“Now, how do you expect me to make it to town without boots?”

“Very slow. By the time you get to the other side of the bridge, there should be a nice little posse gathered. And don’t think about diving over the edge. You’ve got one foot of water and a fifty foot drop.”

Slash Barranca pulled up his pants’ legs as he climbed out of the train and stepped onto the rough track surface. Applause and “hurrahs” rocked the car as the train rolled away without the bootless outlaw. The staff seemed eager to return order and routine for the passengers as quick as possible. Announcements of supper followed with beefsteak, fried eggs and fried potatoes wheeled out to the dining car. A little overdone, but no one complained.

A huge sign made of logs greeted them at the next stop when they transported the injured conductor off the train.

100 Miles to Portland, Oregon
Home of the world’s famous
Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition

Brannon stretched his arms and legs and tried to remove the dust from his travel suit. No amount of brushing or shaking made a dent. He pulled out a copy of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson that his daughter-in-law, Jannette, had given him before he left Arizona, but his mind wandered. He ran through the recent events once more.

It started at the Prescott Post Office with one of those rosy-scented letters from Lady Harriet Reed-Fletcher.

When Lady Fletcher sends you a scented letter, it’s a dangerous omen.

The answer he gave her was “no.”

At fifty-eight years old, Stuart Brannon had no intention of leaving his beloved ranch or Arizona Territory, not even for a long-time, good friend like Harriet. No matter how many times she offered her appeal—“I need one more celebrity . . . It’s for the Willamette Orphan Farm . . . It won’t cost you anything.” But she could not convince him to go to Oregon, especially to participate in a golf tournament charity event in conjunction with the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition.

What was she thinking?

Yes, Captains Lewis and Clark were his heroes.

Yes, they deserved a gala celebration.

And yes, from what he heard, the Oregon coast promised a refreshing change from the desert landscape.

But he had never once picked up a golf club. An old rancher and retired lawman playing on a golf course? What a ridiculous idea.

And the Triple B ranch needed him.

Or he needed the ranch, since his adopted son, Littlefoot Brannon, could oversee and do most of the work.

Life had become a peaceful routine. L.F. and his wife, Jannette, provided him with four over-active grandchildren, who played tag, leapfrog, hopscotch and occasional simple card games, but more important, listened to his stories.

No more evil men to track down. No one trying to shoot him in the back. No lawless gangs preying on the innocent . . . not near his ranch anyway.

Then the telegram came from another friend, Theodore Roosevelt. Stuart, I need you in Portland. Tom Wiseman is missing. I think there’s a cover-up going on. Say you’re going to the Exposition. Find out how a U.S. Marshal can disappear and no one knows why. T.R.

If Tom Wiseman had vanished, Brannon suspected the marshal initiated the event. But why? And where?

But he was too close a friend to ignore this plea. As a government worker, as well as an Arizona rancher, Tom Wiseman had aided him with personal and legal problems. And many times Tom Wiseman had stood with Brannon against lawbreakers, when no one else could or would.

And how could he refuse a request from the President of the United States?

Still, Brannon wondered how much help he could contribute. He could track Wiseman through the hills of Colorado or the deserts of Arizona. But searching the coastal environs of Oregon? A local might do better.

The boy who tugged on his pant leg looked a bit older than his grandson, Everett, but he had similar big, brown eyes that looked at the world like a ball of mystery that had to be pounced on, juggled and unraveled anew each day. “Mr. Brannon, you’re famous like them two explorers, Lewis and Clark, aren’t ya?”

Brannon tussled the boy’s copper-colored hair. “Son, some Arizona outlaws know my name, but few others.”

“My daddy says . . . he’s the man sitting way over there by that window holding his hat between his knees. The pretty lady next to him with the red hair and reading a book is my mama.” The boy swallowed and wiped his nose with his sleeve.

Brannon guessed the man to be in his thirties, dark-haired, but already starting to bald. Next to the woman was a young girl with auburn hair, fresh into puberty, holding a squalling baby. “What does your daddy say?”

“He told me you done cattle drives all over South America and brought more than a thousand Mexican beef into Arizona Territory, all by your lonesome, and kilt off a hundred horses in the bargain, run ’em right into the ground.”

“Now, son, that’s what mountain man Jim Bridger called stretchers. I want you to get it right, tell it straight. I did have the privilege of helping out with several of the great cattle drives, but that was to Kansas. And I entered Arizona Territory with two hundred head.”

“You oughta know and you can call me Drift. That’s the name I picked for when I’m all growed up and carryin’ a Colt revolver, just like yours. Then I’ll be a brave captain in the U.S. Army and kill over a thousand . . .”

“Well, Drift, I scouted for them. That’s all.”

“And you built your ranch out of all the gold you prospected at the Little Stephen Mine. At sunrise it shines like heaven’s streets.”

“I’m afraid I didn’t wind up with more than a small poke from that mine and my Triple B house is made of wood and very rustic. In fact, it’s gotten a tad rundown over the years. Your daddy’s tellin’ you some mighty huge windies.” He winked at the boy.

“But how about that time you was a U.S. Marshal with Wyatt Earp and Buffalo Bill Cody as your deputies and you three saved all those drowning women from a terrible flood in that huge canyon?”

“Why, I do believe I’ve never heard that one before and don’t even know an event close to make it an exaggeration. That one’s an outright lie.”

“Mama says honest men always become famous. But Daddy says most that try to be brave end up dead. And here you lived through that shootout with the train robber, so you must be one of the honest ones. I do know you’re famous. My whole family knows you, even the ones back home in Dinuba. That’s in Calyfornia.” He hitched in a deep breath after his bigger-than-boy-sized soliloquy.

“Now remember, Drift, there was no shootout on this train. No gun was discharged.” Brannon tried to give the boy something of importance to tell. “I have shaken hands with the President of our country and so did Lewis and Clark, only for them, it was President Jefferson instead of President Roosevelt, and they surely are famous.”

The boy’s face brightened and he ran off towards his parents, who stole glances in his direction. He did a kind of wave and nod, but they turned their heads away.

Brannon browsed the fields and hills they passed, filled with town sites, barbed wire fences, painted barns. A landscape both frontier and modern. One scene portrayed a slipshod claim shack with a brand new motor car parked outside.

Farmers and their families had come in droves at the enticement of railroad advertisements to fill up and fertilize the land, with promises of low prices and ownership. One way to populate the West in record time. Otherwise the tracks were laid on vast expanses of empty prairies and wilderness.

Before the railroads, those were the days. Vacant . . . wild . . . free.

Back when men like Stuart Brannon and Tom Wiseman established ranches, raised their families, tried to tame the borderlands by self-protection and the Code of the West before official law ruled.

In 1898 Wiseman called at the Triple B with a request, “We’re starting a volunteer cowboy regiment. Can you help us get some recruits?” Brannon didn’t hesitate. He did his part to enable them to be one of the first in the West to fill their quota to fight in the Spanish-American war.

Some mighty excellent men have been part of A Troop and Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Tom has served his country well.

Now Tom Wiseman needed someone in this country to come to his aid. How, exactly, Brannon didn’t know. He couldn’t believe that anyone could get the draw on his friend.

When Lady Harriet Reed-Fletcher learned that Brannon was headed to Portland, she hurried back a telegram of her own. You’re needed in Gearhart. The orphans need you. Besides, Tom Wiseman last seen near here. We can help. Will meet you at Gearhart depot. Your friend always, Harriet.

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