Chapter 2: Edward and Clayton Big Thunder
There was clarity and depth to the thousands of stars that sparkled across the night sky and a chill in the air as Hank continued on his way though the darkness. As he plodded along after his strange four-legged guide, he kept trying to make sense of the string of events he had so far experienced.
First, there was the old truck stop and the crazy old man he’d met there. The old coot had been of no help to him at all and seemed only to want to toy with his head! In fact, the wretched old place and its strange inhabitant had seemed like something right out of the ‘Twilight Zone’. He’d been glad to get out of there and back on the road.
And then again, once he was back on the road and moving along at 60 miles an hour, he didn’t seem to be getting anywhere! The absence of lights, cars and exits had all seemed so . . . unnatural! And how the hell does a highway suddenly disappear? And the truck . . . a big ol’ Freightliner with a fifty foot trailer behind it just doesn’t vanish in the blink of an eye!
His mind groped for some kind of an explanation and an idea came to him. Could he have blacked out somehow? Could the old man have drugged him, put something in the coffee? Maybe everything he had experienced so far had been some kind of hallucination? Perhaps, instead of following some wild animal around in the desert, he should go back again and look for the truck?
A short but sharp bark from the coyote interrupted his thoughts.
The animal had led him over a sandy rise. It had then continued down into a nearby dry wash and scurried up the other side. It now sat on the far bank, remaining still and silent, its eyes glowing in the beam of the flashlight.
Pausing at the edge of the wash feeling lost and bewildered, Hank started wondering whether or not he was losing his sanity! It was either that, he figured, or he was dreamin’ and he was pretty sure that he wasn’t dreaming.
A sound off to his right drew his attention. He turned, listened, and heard it again! A muffled sound, not animal but human! He turned and directed his flashlight along the bottom of the wash. The beam settled upon what looked at first, like a scarecrow sitting there with its arms extended outwards.
It was a man! No, it was two men sitting back to back, tied spread-armed to a wagon wheel! The man facing him lifted his head, squinting in the flashlight’s beam.
“I’ll be damned.” Hank mumbled under his breath. He stood there for a moment in disbelief and wondered if what he was seeing was real. But then something else kicked in. Suddenly his fear vanished and he acted automatically.
As he headed down into the wash, he recalled old Matthew’s story about the Wild West and two outlaws found dead in the desert. The old man had said they were found tied to a wagon wheel . . . and that they’d been murdered! Now here he was, finding two men tied to a wagon wheel! The only difference was that these two men weren’t dead, they were definitely alive and in need of help!
Suddenly he was upon them.
They sure were a couple of pretty rough looking characters. From their dress and features, they looked to be Indian.
“You guys are lucky I came by!” Hank said as he took a pocketknife from his jeans pocket and cut the neckerchief that gagged the first man. “Don’t worry, I’ll have you cut loose in no time!”
“Much obliged mister.” the man croaked through parched, dry lips.
“This is one hell of a night!” Hank said as he cut the leather thongs that bound the man’s wrists to the wheel, “It’s been one weird-assed thing after another!”
He cut the rope that bound the man’s legs and feet together. The man moaned and rolled over onto his side as the trucker set to work cutting the other man loose.
“What happened? Who did this to you guys?”
The first man was on all four trying to get his bearings. “Some friends of ours . . . turned on us.” He replied.
“Looks like your buddy’s comin’ around.” Hank said as he freed the second man, who slumped over moaning. Both men showed the marks of having been beaten before they were tied.
Hank reached into his shirt pocket and produced what was left of a roll of LifeSavers. It was all he had on him and there were only three left. He offered one to the first man.
“It’s all I’ve got on me. A little sugar might do you some good.” He said as he handed it to him. The man held it up to crossed eyes for a moment and then popped it in his mouth. He managed to get up on his feet though his legs were still a bit wobbly.
He was a tall man, about thirty years of age. He was lean of body and wide of shoulder with a narrow face, high cheekbones and a strong jaw. His long, coal black hair was pulled back in a ponytail and dust covered his gray frock coat and pants.
He kept staring at the flashlight.
“What the hell kind of a light is that mister?”
“It’s one a’ them Mag-Lites.” Hank replied, “But I’m afraid it won’t last too much longer before the batteries go dead.”
“Let me look at that.”
It was more of an order than a request. Hank took note of it as he handed the flashlight over to the man. He inspected it closely, turning it over in his hands like he’d never seen one before. Hank noted that too, as he knelt and gave a LifeSaver to the second man, who had raised himself to his hands and knees.
“This might help some.” He offered.
Number two seemed a bit younger than the first. He was shorter and stockier, with a round face, his long hair parted in the middle and braided down each side. He wore a frontier shirt, a fringed buckskin vest and knee-high moccasins. He inspected the candy and then put it in his mouth. “Glad you came along mister,” he said. “We for sure would’a been goners.”
“Our luck ain’t run out yet!” number one answered as he turned and handed the flashlight back to Hank. “What we need to do now is get the hell out of here!”
Hank’s eyes studied the tall one as he brushed the desert dust from his clothes. Who were these two? What were they doing out here tied up like that? The old man’s story kept coming to mind. Two half-breed bandits . . . tied to a wagon wheel. They were found dead!
There was no way that these could be the same two men that the crazy old coot had spoken of. It was totally impossible! Whoever these men were, they were real and stuck out in the desert on foot, the same as he.
Hank stood and popped the last LifeSaver in his mouth.
“We could head on back towards the highway.” He said, “Somebody’s bound to stop an’ help us out or we could get lucky and find my truck.”
The tall one turned with a puzzled look on his face.
“Find what truck?” he asked. “I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, mister.”
Hank returned his gaze, his frustration mounting.
“I’m talking about a big ‘ol Freightliner an’ a forty-eight foot trailer!” He replied. “Things like that just don’t disappear. It’s got to be out there somewhere! I must’ve just got turned around, disorientated somehow. Come daylight we’ll find it sittin’ right there on the side of the road!”
“You ain’t makin’ any damn sense!” the tall one answered. “You’re talkin’ crazy, like some damn fool!”
Apparently, the man had no idea what Hank was talking about. His actions, his mannerisms, the look on his face seemed to confirm this. The only other alternative was that the man was an actor, playin’ the part of a ghostly outlaw from the Old West! If that was the case, he was a pretty good actor.
Hank’s irritation rose.
“Well boys, I’m lookin’ for a great big prairie schooner!” he replied sarcastically; “It ought to be pretty damned easy to find!” He pointed back in the direction he had come. “It’s a great, big white thing on eighteen wheels! You guys help me find it and we’ll all ride on out’a here!”
The short, stocky one turned to his companion.
“I don’t think this man is right in the head.” He said with apparent concern.
“The crazy man wants to head West.” replied the tall one; “Seems to me like a good enough way to go. Anyway, we best be gettin’ a move on. We got a long walk ahead of us.”
“Still,” said the stocky one, “Something is not right about this one.”
Actors playin’ their parts, Hank thought, but why and to what purpose? It just didn’t make any sense. All he knew was that if he could get back to the truck, then maybe this whole nightmare would come to an end.
With Hank leading the way, they climbed up out of the wash and started walking.
“Where’s that coyote when I need him?” Hank mumbled to himself.
“Oh, he’s out there somewhere, watchin’ us.” replied the stocky one matter-of-factly.
The flashlight wasn’t quite as bright anymore and Hank knew it wouldn’t last another hour. What if, in the dark, he lost track of where he was going, passed up what he was looking for and wound up lost?
Hell, he was already lost!
Somehow he’d managed to lose a highway and an eighteen-wheeler and on top of that, he’d just released two men that were tied to an old wagon wheel! These men looked to be Indian, or half-breeds as old Matthew had described them. And their clothing, their speech and mannerisms seemed to be right out of the days of the Old West!
An eerie feeling settled over him and he shook his head.
Somehow he had to keep cool, keep his act together until he could figure out what was really going on. A chill went up his spine and he could feel his heart pounding in his chest as he plodded along.
Easy now, he told himself.
There’s got to be a reasonable explanation for all of this!
An hour later, they were still moving slowly across the rolling wasteland. Everything seemed so strangely different somehow, forebodingly still and silent as they made their way. Still, there had been no sign of a road or the truck or even a light on the horizon.
Not long afterward, they came upon an old, abandoned Conestoga wagon. The old wreck was lying on its side, the wood dried and weather worn. A good portion of it had been scavenged for firewood.
“Is this here your lost wagon?” The stocky one asked with a snide glance.
“Very funny.” Hank answered in reply.
“This is as good’a place as any to hold up.” said the tall one.
Others had thought so too from the looks of it.
Next to the wagon, someone had neatly piled some rocks in a circle and apparently, many a passing traveler had made their campfire there. It contained the remains of some burnt animal bones and a charred old tin. Hank watched as the two men went about scavenging tinder and breaking up some old, dry wagon boards for a fire.
He became aware of the nervous tension in his body, the heightened state of his senses. It was imperative to be alert and ready for anything as far as these two were concerned. After all, what manner of men were they? Hell, they hadn’t even offered their names!
And then suddenly one of them was speaking to him.
“Do you have any matches?”
Without thinking anything about it, Hank knelt down, reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out his cigarette lighter. He lit it, adjusted up the flame a bit and held it to the tinder. The fire caught up nicely and within a few moments, he had a warm little fire going. Rubbing his hands together, he held them up to the growing flames.
“Now at least we can see each other without having the flashlight shined in our faces.” he said. He sat back and reached into his pocket for his cigarettes. Putting one to his lips, he lit it up, then held out the pack to his newly acquired friends.
“Cigarette?” he asked.
The offering of a smoke had been an automatic gesture on his part. He thought nothing of it until he noticed that both men were sitting there with looks of astonishment on their faces. They turned and looked at each other and then back at him.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
The stocky one leaned forward and reached out his hand. Duggan handed him a cigarette and the man examined it closely, then handed it to his partner who examined it as well.
“You roll yer smokes nice an’ pretty mister.” commented the tall one. “What the hell is this on the end of it?”
Hank, taken aback momentarily by their behavior, gave them a puzzled look. “You tellin’ me you’ve never seen smokes like that before?”
“That’s exactly what I’m tellin’ ya.” the tall one snapped. “Did you roll this?”
Again, old Matthew’s story came to mind. Hank recalled that back in the Old West, people carried pouches of tobacco and cigarette papers and they rolled their own, one at a time. There was no such thing as a pack of Camels back then.
“Its machine made.” He explained. “That little thing on the end of it is a filter. You put that end of it in your mouth.”
The tall one handed it back to his friend and he put it to his lips. Duggan leaned over and lit it for him. As he did so he anticipated the next question. It came instead as a comment from the tall one.
“That’s a mighty fancy little doodad you got there, mister.”
“You mean the cigarette lighter?”
“Mister, I ain’t ever seen anything like that before! Or a lantern like the one that you carry either! It seems to me that you ain’t from around these here parts.”
A strange realization started to sink in for Hank. These men apparently had no conception of flashlights, trucks, cigarettes or lighters and their dress and mannerisms fit right into the old western time period. Was it possible that these two were the Coyote Bandits that the old man had talked about?
That was ridiculous!
Or was it? Was it possible that without realizing it, he had actually traveled back through some kind of time warp, to the days of the Old West? Was that what the old man had meant when he said that the desert could turn on you?
That would mean that he’d just saved the two outlaws from dying in the desert! Without knowing what he was doing, he might have already altered history! And what was even more incredible was that it was all beginning to make sense!
For the time being, it would be wise to play it cool. He didn’t want to have to try and explain things to two guys who certainly wouldn’t be able to understand and would only think he was crazy. They might even turn on him! After all, according to old Matthew, these men were notorious outlaws! No, the man’s remark had given Hank an out and so he took advantage of it.
“You know, we still haven’t introduced each other.” he began. “My name is Hank, Hank Duggan.”
He took a long draw on his cigarette as he gathered his thoughts.
“I’m originally from Europe.” He explained. “People back home are used to new inventions that folks here haven’t even heard of yet! That’s why I’m here. The company I work for sent me here to travel across this country and introduce these new inventions to America!”
The stocky one poked his partner in the ribs with his elbow. “We got us a real, live Euro-pean here Ed!” he laughed.
The tall one looked warily at Hank. “Well Mr. Hank Duggan, it ain’t proper to get your hide saved by a man and not be respectful and polite in return. My name is Edgar Big Thunder and this is my brother, Clayton.” He reached over and offered his hand. “We’re mighty glad you come along.”
Hank shook hands with him and then Clay in turn.
Edgar and Clay Big Thunder, the Coyote Bandits, straight out of old Matthew’s story! Hank’s logic told him that that was impossible. Some sixth sense told him otherwise.
“So what are you doin’ roamin’ around on foot out here in the middle of the desert?” Edgar asked, still curious about his rescuer.
Somehow, Hank’s answer came quick and seemed perfectly natural.
“Looks like I got robbed and left for dead, the same as you.”
“That sparked Edgar’s interest.
“How many men robbed you?” he asked.
“Can’t recall much, except that there was four of ’em.” Hank replied. “They took off with my horses, the wagon and my entire inventory!”
“I’d bet it was them damned Spencer brothers!” said Clay.
“It might well’ve been.” Edgar replied.
It was clear that Clay went for Hank’s little story but he couldn’t be sure his brother did. It was hard to tell what the tall one was thinking.
“All I can remember is waking up to find a coyote sitting there staring at me.” Hank continued. “It was the strangest thing. It started acting like it wanted me to follow it somewhere. I guess I didn’t know what else to do so I followed after it. That coyote led me right straight to you boys!”
For the first time, Edgar cracked a smile. “Old Man Coyote . . . he’s a trickster! He’s always playin’ tricks on people and foolin’ around. I think he played a trick on the Spencer brothers!”
Both men broke out in laughter.
Clay added, “Yep, they figured that we were done for but then Old Man Coyote brought you along to rescue us.” He broke out laughing again, then checked himself and went silent for a moment. Then he said. “You know, Old Man Coyote is a spirit helper of mine.”
“A spirit helper?”
Again the two broke out in laughter. Evidently it was a private joke and Hank had the feeling that he was somehow the butt of it.
“I’ve never heard of a coyote actin’ like that before.” He said.
Not a whole lot more was said after that and it wasn’t too much longer before both of Hank’s newfound acquaintances had made themselves comfortable and gone to sleep. At least they appeared to have.
One of them was snoring.
Hank lay on his back on the ground beside the dying fire and gazed up at the stars. The night was clear and cool and there seemed to be more stars in the sky than he had ever noticed before.
His mind grappled with the reality of his situation.
Though all the clues seemed to support a time travel theory, his rational mind had a hard time accepting it. It would certainly explain why he had not seen a trace of civilization and also why the road and the truck had disappeared. It was beginning to make sense.
Or was it?
There was still another, seemingly more rational possibility.
What if the old man back at the diner really had drugged him somehow? What if this was all some elaborate hoax contrived to cover up a truck theft operation? What if the disappearance of the truck and the highway had been a drug induced hallucination? Didn’t that make more sense than time travel?
Maybe that was the reason the old coot had planted the story of the Coyote Bandits in his head. What if these two men were part of some elaborate scheme to make him think he had traveled back in time? What if the ultimate goal of these two men was to do away with him and bury him out here in the desert somewhere? Not likely, he thought. If that were their purpose, they would have done away with him right off, instead of putting on this elaborate masquerade. A cold shiver traveled up his spine.
These were chilling thoughts indeed!
Hank raised himself up on an elbow and gazed over at the dark, sleeping forms of the Big Thunder brothers. He put another piece of wood on the fire before lying back down.
Why would they want him to think he’d gone back in time?
What if their plan was to convince him that such was the case? Once they had accomplished that, then the next step would be to somehow drug him again. Then they could disappear and leave him to wander out in the desert alone. If he ever did make it back, he would tell the authorities a tale about time travel and they’d think he was crazy. In the meantime, these guys could have the truck disassembled and sold off as parts! That made a hell of a lot more sense than time travel! Still, the more he thought about it, the less sense it made.
Who would go through all that time and trouble just to steal an old, worn out truck and an empty trailer?
Hank Duggan knew that he was simply clutching at straws in order to explain away something that reason and logic told him was impossible.
One of the sleeping men stirred, giving him a start.
There was no telling what would happen next. At any rate, he figured he’d better be on his guard with these two. Whether the explanation for all this turned out to be truck theft or time warp, only time itself would tell. Anyway, it would be dawn in a few hours and maybe with the new day would come some answers.
Hank Duggan yawned as he lay there gazing up at the starry desert sky. Wouldn’t it be something if by some strange twist of fate, he actually was back in the days of the Old West?