Chapter 1: Ride To Nowhere
Somewhere in the desert night, a band of hungry coyotes yipped and wailed and the sound of their eerie laughter carried out far across the land. Every creature that heard the sound knew its meaning; The group had come across some unsuspecting prey, had isolated and encircled it, and now that circle was closing in for the kill.
A pause seemed to come over both the land and all it’s varied residents as the coyote’s song pierced through the night. And when at last the sound ebbed and faded and silence returned, only then did time move on. The desert’s inhabitants warily resumed their nocturnal activities while overhead, through the vast dome of blackness, the Milky Way glittered in the sky . . .
Eighteen wheels made their way down a lonely stretch of two-lane highway as they rolled across the vast expanse of northwestern New Mexico. The old Freightliner hummed along, pulling an empty forty-eight footer with little effort. Inside the cab, Dwight Yoakum sang “The heart that you own” and Hank Duggan turned up the volume on the radio. His memory strayed back to when he’d first heard the song a decade ago, when he’d first started driving the big rigs.
Ten years . . . it sure didn’t seem like it was that long ago.
He’d gone through one of them driver training schools. The company paid for his training so he started out running short-haul for Hogan out of St. Louis. It was tough at first, but it beat the monotony of a factory or the confinement of a warehouse. He’d had more than his fill of that soul-killing crap.
After working for Hogan for a couple of years, he’d moved on to driving long haul for Werner. As it turned out, he didn’t much mind being on the road, where a man can see nothing around him but rolling lands and purple mountains. He’d come to love a big, blue sky stretching from horizon to horizon and the way the clouds reflected colors in the sunset. That kind of perspective sure could give a man a sense of freedom, of being unrestricted.
He fell in love with the Southwest, settled himself in a mobile home on a few secluded acres outside of Albuquerque and finally went to work for Morgan Brothers drivin’ short-haul and local runs. He was home every evening and had his weekends off.
The glow of the instruments cast his own eerie reflection on the windshield before him. A familiar man, a man all of 40 years, stared back at him from under the brim of a black Stetson. The youthful, angled features, the deep, intense eyes he’d known all his life were starting to show signs of age. Around the eyes mostly, he thought, most likely from squinting too much. Anyway, the dark hair was still dark; his frame was still tall and lean. Hell, he looked better than a lot of men his age.
The sole of his black, fancy stitched boot held steady on the gas pedal, keeping his speed down on that dark night. He was hoping to see the lights of a truck stop or a gas station up ahead but there was nothing. It had been some time since he’d last seen the lights of another vehicle and it seemed odd that he’d been alone on the road for so long.
Just over the next dark rise, he told himself, just beyond the sight of his weary eyes . . . any minute now he’d come upon some kind of accommodation. He could sure use a cup of coffee.
Lighting up a cigarette, he silently cursed his dispatcher for sending him out on this unexpected, unfamiliar run. The song on the radio came to an end, the last note sounding and fading away. There was a moment’s pause of silence and then a loud, booming voice jerked Hank’s brain back from his musings.
Annoyed, he cursed and switched it off, welcoming the silence. All he wanted to hear was the hum of the big diesel and the drone of the tires on the road. He rolled down the window a little to air out the cab, the cool breeze feeling good against his skin.
His thoughts returned again to his dispatcher.
Wayne was the man’s name. He was a flabby mass of a man, with a disposition not well liked by the other drivers. Hank could still hear the man’s raspy voice.
“Congratulations Duggan,” the man said as he stepped up and slapped a beefy hand on Hank’s shoulder. “Old Sam Wilson’s out sick an’ I need you to make his weekly run. Get yourself out to the Navajo Tradin’ Company. Take 596 ‘till ya hit W an’ then hang a left. You drop off an empty, pick up a load an’ then head straight on back. It shouldn’t take you too long.”
Hank had finished his regular route early, had planned on heading home, ordering a pizza and watching a Western on TV. But he’d been unlucky enough to be the first driver back to the yard, so Wayne went ahead and dumped the job on him. As other drivers were pulling into the gate, their driving done for the day, Hank was busy hooking up to an empty trailer for another run.
Now, hours later, he found himself out in the middle of nowhere.
“Shouldn’t take too long my ass!” he spoke aloud.
His eyes strained into the darkness beyond the headlight’s beam. There wasn’t a sign of civilization in sight, not a single light up ahead, nothing but the glow of the monotonous dividing lines in the center of the road.
Seemed mighty strange, he thought, to be driving so long and see nothing on the road. In fact, it was startin’ to feel downright bizarre! The farther on he drove and the more that he thought about it, the more unnerving it became. A dark sensation swept over him like a cloud and suddenly everything seemed very surreal. Just a few more miles, he told himself as he tried to shake the feeling off.
And then, seemingly as if somebody had just flicked a switch and turned it on, a sign appeared in the distance. To the weary trucker it seemed like the beam of a lighthouse to a seagoing sailor. Apparently, a gas station or truck stop had just materialized up ahead!
The big truck kept on rolling and as he drew closer to the site, Hank could make out the words on the sign . . . fuel and food blinked on and off in the night.
He started gearing down, slowing the big rig and approaching with caution. Still, he damn near passed the unmarked and unlighted turnoff! The air brakes hissed and sneezed as the big truck rumbled to a crawl across a dusty, pot holed parking lot.
A single floodlight sat atop a bent utility pole. It’s lonely light shining down on an old, dilapidated filling station. From the looks of the place, Hank figured it must have been built back in the late 40’s or the early 50’s. And right next door to it, weathered and forlorn, was a silver railroad diner.
Looked like the place had been shut down a long time ago and was now nothing more than an old relic rotting away in the desert. It looked ragged, unfrequented, unused. Still, a neon sign in the diner window blinked ′open . . . open . . . open.’
Hank pulled the rig up alongside a pair of antique gas pumps, shut down the engine and turned off his lights. As he climbed down from the cab, the first thing he noticed was the stillness and the silence . . . not even so much as a breeze stirred the air.
The only lonely sound was the cab door shuttin’ and the crunching of his boots on the gravel as he walked towards the seemingly abandoned filling station. Pausing before an open garage bay door, he saw the rusting hulk of an old Chevy pickup truck perched up on concrete blocks and draped over with a dusty, ragged tarp.
He walked over and peered in through the dirt on the storefront door. On the ceiling, a single florescent tube flickered, casting its weak, uneven light on a dusty sales counter and an old, mechanical cash register. A naked young lady on an antique Harley Davidson graced an old picture calendar that hung crooked on the wall behind the register. Along the far wall, dusty, cobwebbed shelves displayed nothing but a few old cans of motor oil, some dirty rags and a dead bird.
Nobody’s been through here for quite awhile, he thought as he turned and started towards the diner. Could’nt see a thing through the dingy windows but the warm glow of light on drawn curtains. He paused before the steps of the entrance and glanced up at a battered sign perched on the rooftop, its weatherworn face chipped and peeling. There, faded letters proclaimed, “Coyote Inn.”
He stepped up and stood inside an old, wood frame entryway.
“I’d bet that’s all that comes around this place.” he mumbled to himself as he pushed open the squeaky, port-holed door and walked inside.
The interior was fairly well lit and the first thing that attracted his eyes was the long silver lunch counter that ran nearly the length of the car. He counted at least a dozen swivel stools along its length and there were three little window booths on either side of the doorway where he stood.
From the look of things and the musty smell, the place hadn’t seen use in years. The tables and upholstery were worn and torn, the curtains were tattered and faded from the sun and there was dust and cobwebs all over the place.
But there was something else too.
There was a strange air about the place, some sort of energy that Hank couldn’t quite describe. He felt the hairs on his neck and arms rising.
And then his nose caught a whiff of fresh brewed coffee.
And then a voice rang out.
“What can I do for you stranger?”
Startled, Hank’s eyes darted back and forth around the room but saw no one! It seemed that the sound had come from the rear entranceway and storage area behind the counter.
“I’m back here.” the voice spoke again.
Hank stepped up and peered over the counter.
There, hidden from view, was an old man with a long, gray beard. His chair leaned back on two legs and his feet were propped up on a shelf. Without moving or looking out from under his worn out ten-gallon hat, the old man waved and spoke again.
“You wouldn’t happen to be lost now, would ya?”
Dusting off a stool with his hand, Hank sat himself down at the counter. “You gave me a start there, old timer.” He said, pulling his cigarettes from his shirt pocket. He tapped one from the pack and proceeded to light up. “Can I talk you out’a some of that coffee?”
The old man sat upright in his chair and pushed back his hat. His gray hair was long and pulled back in a ponytail, his face was leathery, his eyes sunken. He wore a faded, red flannel shirt and a pair of old blue jeans with holes worn in the knees.
“Well I reckon so.” he answered slowly. He looked up at Hank, shook his head and chuckled to himself. “Yes, I reckon so.”
“What makes you think I’m lost old timer?” Hank asked.
The man looked straight at him and grinned.
“Because you must be.” He said, “This place’s been shut down years ago. There ain’t nobody comes around here anymore.”
He stood and reached for a tin coffeepot on a shelf nearby. “I’m all by m’self out here an’ that’s just the way I’ve grown to like it.”
He placed a cup on the counter in front of Hank.
“Lights very rarely come on in this ol’ diner.” He said. “Heard the truck pull up. Figured you must’ve seen the sign.”
Hank’s eyes studied the old man as he poured the coffee.
Judgin’ from his looks, he’d been a tall, powerful man in his day, but however old he was, the years must have been hard on him. It seemed to Hank that the old man wasn’t quite right in the head. That was understandable, considering the man’s environment.
He gazed around the room again.
Hank took a sip of his coffee. The old man said nothing but just stood there looking at him. He took another sip and placed his cup down.
Both men said nothing but just stared at each other, eye to eye.
Hank broke the silence.
“The name’s Hank, Hank Duggan.”
“Matthew.” the old man replied. “What’s yer need?”
“I’m looking for a place called the Navajo Trading Company. It’s off of Highway W which is supposed to intersect with 596 out here.” Hank gestured behind him with his thumb. “Now, I don’t know if I passed it or if it’s further up the road, or what! Haven’t seen any lights or signs an’ it may sound weird, but I haven’t seen a single other vehicle on the road! Seems like I keep on drivin’ an’ drivin’ an’ gettin’ nowhere! It’s downright spooky.”
The old man chuckled to himself again. “Lots of strange things happen out there in that desert.” he said, “Why, there’s a whole mess of wild stories I could tell you! Some of the local native folks swear by ’em.”
Hank let out a sigh. The old coot had ignored his question. Was he being deliberately uncooperative or was he simply not running on all of his cylinders? “You got a telephone I can use?” Hank asked with a smile.
The old timer shook his head and laughed. “Hell, there ain’t no telephone here mister, least-ways none that works!”
Hank’s impatience rose.
Who was this old guy and what was he doing out in the middle of nowhere with no means of communication? Was he a homeless drifter, a squatter who had come upon the place and decided to take up residence? It was possible, Hank thought, but then again, a homeless drifter wouldn’t have electricity and hot coffee, would he?
“Tell me something Matthew; what are you doing out here all by yourself in this old place?” he asked.
The old man laughed again.
“Oh, it’s about all I know anymore, mister. Seems like I been here forever.”
That wasn’t much of an answer Hank thought. The man more than likely did have something to hide. “How long’ve you been here?” he asked.
Matthew’s eyes held steady on Hank but he said nothing.
“I asked how long you been out here old man.” Hank insisted.
The old timer leaned forward, resting his elbows on the counter.
“I’ve been out here fer quite awhile.” He replied. “You might say that I’m a part of this place, an’ I reckon it’s a part of me too.”
The lights flickered for just an instant and the old guy paused.
“I heard that truck of yours comin’ from way a long way’s off. I said to myself, now there’s some damn fool gonna see the sign! He’s gonna pull in here sayin’ he’s lost.”
The old man looked straight at Hank and grinned.
“Sure enough, the door swings open an’ it’s you!”
It seemed pretty certain to Hank that old Matthew wasn’t going to be of much help, if any at all. Maybe pulling into this place wasn’t such a good idea, he thought. It would probably be best just to get back on the road.
He snuffed his cigarette out in a dirty tin ashtray and then stood up and pulled a couple of dollar bills out of his wallet. “Well Matthew, it looks like I’ll just be movin’ on.” He said as he laid his money down on the counter.
“Now hold on there, you ain’t finished your coffee!” the old man protested.
Hank shook his head and forced a smile.
“This is all getting pretty bizarre Matthew.” he said. “Hell, I just want to find this Navajo place, do what I have to do and be on my way back to Albuquerque! I’m just wasting time here.”
“Wastin’ time? Is that what you call it?” Matthew snapped as if Hank’s words had struck a nerve. “Tell me somethin’ Mr. Hank Duggan. How long’ve you been drivin’ around out there without knowing where you’re at? How long has it been dark out there, I mean really dark? You said yerself, the road just goes on and on and ya can’t see anything and ya don’t get anywhere!”
“That’s just about the size of it.” Duggan replied. Maybe the old man knew a lot more than he was letting on.
“Well then, it’ll make no difference if you just sit down for a spell an’ drink yer coffee, will it?” The old man poured himself another cup and topped off Hank’s. “I told you, strange things happen in this desert! It’d be best fer you to just relax, set an’ visit an’ talk for a spell.”
Hank sighed again and resigned himself to sitting back down at the counter. He could, after all, use the coffee.
“So what can you tell me Matthew?” he asked.
Matthew leaned his elbow on the counter and swirled a spoon in his cup. “You know, a lot of folks, especially the Indians, believe this desert is haunted! That’s why so many strange things happen out here.”
Here we go, he’s gonna start telling me ghost stories, Hank thought in apprehension, “Are you tellin’ me that I’m lost in the haunted desert?”
“Now, I didn’t say that. I just said . . .”
“That the desert is haunted, right?”
Hank lit up another cigarette.
“That’s right.” said the old timer. “There’s stories about people mysteriously disappearin’, ghosts, weird lights in the sky . . . hell, this area’s known for all manner of strange things. Why, I could tell you more stories than a man could shake a stick at!”
“I bet you could Matthew,” Hank replied. “But can you tell me how to find the Navajo Trading Company? That’s all I really want to know. The last thing I want to do is listen to a lonely old man tell stories! I just figured that since you’ve been out here for so long, you ought to know where the God-damned place is!”
“Have you ever heard of the Coyote Bandits?” the old man asked, again totally ignoring the question.
Hank shook his head in despair. “No, Matthew, but I bet you’re sure enough gonna tell me.”
“I sure can!” Matthew replied with enthusiasm. “Their names were Ed an’ Clay Big Thunder. Outlaws they were, half-breed bandits! They once rode all through these parts back in the days of the Old West. Some say it was the desert that did them in and swallowed ’em up in the end!”
Old Matthew emptied his cup and reached for the pot to refill it.
“Their bodies were found in a right curious state.” He continued. “The story goes, that some friends of theirs, the Spencer Brothers, turned on ’em. They bound ‘em to an old wagon wheel an’ left ’em fer dead out there in the desert! Least ways that’s what the bounty hunters said when they found their bodies and brought ’em on into Santa Fe.”
“There was a big dispute over who actually killed ’em. Some say it was their outlaw friends, some say it was the bounty hunters and then there’s some that say that the desert itself did ’em in and it swallowed up their souls!”
Hank shook his head, gulped down his last bit of coffee and snuffed out his cigarette.
“Did you ever hear of the Spencer brothers?” Matthew asked.
“Nope.” Hank replied. “I never heard of ’em.”
“You never know.” the old man said with a wink.
Hank shot him a puzzled look.
“What the hell are you talking about old timer?” he snapped.
“It sure is strange how nature works, ain’t it?” The old man said as he leaned towards Hank and pointed a crooked finger at him. “You found yerself lost out there in that same desert. Then ya saw the sign light up so ya pulled in here. Well, maybe that’s what you call coincidence and then again, maybe not. Maybe it’s just nature, maybe its fate. And maybe you wont ever find that Navajo Tradin’ place at all!”
Well that was the straw that broke the camel’s back! It was time to hit the road! Hank Duggan had had enough coffee and more than enough of old Matthew and his craziness! It was time to climb back in the rig and get on the highway. At least he’d be moving and away from that place and it’s creepy inhabitant!
“Well old timer, I’d love to sit around and hear your damn fool stories, but I got a job to do, so I think I’ll be leavin’ now.”
Hank got up, plopped down a few dollar bills and turned to go.
“Why the hell don’t ya just sit back down an’ relax fer awhile?” the old man pleaded.
Hank just shook his head and laughed. “I think you’ve been out here for way too long old man!”
“You don’t need t’be runnin’ off right now!” said old Matthew, with a distinct tone of urgency in his voice. “I got some beer out in the trailer and I’ll tell you some good stories too!” He motioned for Hank to sit back down. “We’ll set here awhile till them lights go out, then you can go on your merry way. That’s what I’d do, if I was you!”
“Don’t you worry ‘bout me, ol’ timer.” Hank replied with finality. “I’ll be just fine.”
The old man shook his finger at him. “Well then, you do what ya have to . . . but don’t you be surprised when that desert turns on you!”
Hank Duggan climbed back into the cab of the Freightliner. He fired up the engine and then directed the big rig back out onto the highway, leaving old Matthew and the Coyote Inn behind.
Not seeing a soul in sight, he pulled out onto the highway and accelerated on down the road. Driving along once again, he lit up another cigarette to calm his growing frustration. First, he had gotten railroaded into making old man Wilson’s run and then got lost somewhere out in no-man’s-land. Then he pulled into a dead truck stop inhabited by a crazy old man who wanted to tell ghost stories!
The friggin’ Navajo Trading Company! God only knew how long it would take to find the damned place and get back to the yard! With a curse Hank strained his eyes lookin’ for something, anything along the road before him. Just as before, all he could see were reflective mile markers and the white center lines going on and on into the night.
After nearly half an hour of driving and smoking cigarettes, he still had yet to see anything. There were no other vehicles, no exits, and no lights. There was no nothing!
It was starting to get to him.
Slowing the big truck down, he reached for the CB radio and turned it on. Maybe someone out there had their ‘ears on.’ Maybe he could raise another driver.
“Somebody out there copy this?” He spoke into the mike. “I sure hope someone out there can hear this . . . anybody come on.”
Slow, drawn out seconds ticked by.
Hank switched the unit off and then on again. It lit up sure enough, but it remained stubbornly silent.
“Anybody got your ears on out there?”
Still, there was nothing. Though it had worked just fine earlier in the day, the radio seemed like it was stone dead.
Hank cursed again in frustration.
He should check the road map again he thought, surely he’d missed the turnoff! He started gearing down an’ slowing so he could pull the truck onto the shoulder of the road. The air brakes sneezed and hissed as the big truck came to a halt in a cloud of dust. Swinging open the door, Hank climbed down out of the cab. When his boots hit the ground he turned and instantly froze in his tracks.
The road was gone!
He stood there for a moment, dumbfounded.
He knew damn well that he’d just pulled off onto the shoulder of 596, but where the road should have been, there was now nothing but desert, scrub brush and clumps of prickly pear! There was no trace of a highway anywhere to be seen!
His pulse began to race and suddenly he felt light-headed!
He tried to shake it off.
There’s an explanation, he told himself, even though at the moment, he could hardly think. Was he hallucinating? Surely this couldn’t be happening! Had he somehow blacked out and driven the rig off the road?
He climbed back up into the cab and pulled a flashlight out from an overhead compartment. Then he climbed back down again and walked slowly towards the back of the trailer shining the flashlight’s beam on the tires and the ground.
He could see how the tires had sunk into the sand in some places and had run over and uprooted brush in others. Tracks in the sand led back from the trailer and off into the desert. Must have been a rough ride, yet he’d felt nothing unusual as he was bringing the rig to a stop. Apparently, there seemed to be no damage to the truck or the trailer.
He walked back to the cab and climbed up into his seat. His hands fumbled with his cigarette pack until he placed one to his lips and then he fumbled around for the lighter.
He’d just pulled off the road. That much was certain, but he was just as certain that there was no road out there! He noticed his hand was shaking slightly as he lit up his smoke.
Then, looking forward through the windshield he noticed for the first time, the dark form of an animal sitting just beyond the beam of the headlights. Two glowing eyes stared back at him from out of the darkness.
Cigarette hanging from his lips, Hank Duggan sat motionless for several moments as he stared at the glowing orbs. For a moment time stood still and then quite unexpectedly, the diesel engine ceased its familiar humming and an almost deafening silence followed! It was an unpleasant, eerie silence.
Hank glanced down at the instrument panel as if hoping to find an answer. Surely he hadn’t touched a thing; the engine had simply stopped running! He reached for the ignition switch and tried to restart . . . but nothing happened! There wasn’t a sound, not a click or a whir.
Glancing back again through the windshield, he saw that the mysterious visitor was still sitting there, watching him, almost as if it were waiting for him. Surely, it was a dog or a coyote, he reasoned, but it sure seemed odd the way it just sat there staring at him!
Slowly and with apprehension, Hank opened the door and climbed down from the cab. Switching on the flashlight, he started walking slowly toward the animal, the truck’s headlights casting his own shadow on the ground before him as he went.
Approaching with great caution, he had closed the distance by half when the animal suddenly stood up on all four legs and wagged its tail! In that same instant, Hank suddenly found himself plunged into pitch darkness as the headlight beams went out!
“Jesus Christ!” he shouted as he swung around and pointed the flashlight beam at the truck only to find, to his astonishment . . . that there was no truck! Where the big rig had stood just moments before, there was nothing but desert sand, cactus and scrub brush! There weren’t even any tire tracks in the sand!
Hank swung around again to face the animal!
In the flashlight beam he could see it was definitely a coyote! The animal stood there panting, and then cocked its head sideways at him. It sat back down on its haunches with its ears erect.
The creature seemed to make the strangest sound; almost as if it was laughing. It barked, spun around and then trotted away a few steps, glancing back at Hank as if expecting him to follow.
Hank surveyed the area again, shining the flashlight’s beam slowly around him. There was no road, no truck, not a light but the stars in the sky, not a sound but his own heavy breathing.
A wave of fear came over him and he suddenly became aware of the pounding of his heart in his chest. Again he turned and scanned around him with the flashlight, seeing nothing but desert in all directions.
The coyote barked impatiently.
He had to command himself to think! Just how does a highway disappear? How does a big, old truck and a fifty-foot trailer vanish into thin air? It was something that couldn’t possibly happen and yet something that most certainly did happen!
Suddenly Hank realized that whatever had happened and how it had happened wasn’t the most important thing right then. The fact remained that he was stranded, in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but the flashlight in his hand! He scanned the area one last time.
Nothing as far he could see.
The coyote barked again and he trained his light on the animal. Clearly, it wanted him to follow. Alas, what else was there to do?
“Looks like it’s just you an’ me now.” He said to the coyote.
And so reluctantly and a little bit wobbly at first, Hank started out after it. The creature glanced back at him often and seemed to pace itself, remaining within the reach of the flashlight’s beam as they moved along. Occasionally, when Hank lagged behind, the animal would stop and wait for him to catch up before movin’ on.
Hank kept going over what had happened to him in his mind, and felt a strange sense of foreboding that he couldn’t shake off. Somehow, he’d wound up afoot in the desert, roaming around in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, trailing after a wild coyote! If someone had told him a story like this, he surely wouldn’t believe it!
And then he remembered old Matthew back at the truck stop.
“Don’t you be surprised when that desert turns on you.” the crazy old man had warned.
Hank recalled the name on the sign above the diner; the Coyote Inn. And it was odd the way that the coyote had appeared right before the rig vanished. He felt his heart beating fast. Calm down, he told himself, there has to be a logical explanation for all of this.
And then he stopped abruptly.
He shined the flashlight all around again and strained his eyes, but as far as the light penetrated into the darkness, he could see nothing but the rolling desert. And then again, the beam settled on the coyote. It was sitting on its haunches, panting, waiting for him.
The animal stood up and moved, looking back to make sure the man was following. Hank continued along, alternately shining the flashlight on the ground before him and on the coyote up ahead.