Chapter 24: Deadly Shoot-out
The ghostly form of their mysterious four-legged guide glided over the countryside, directing Hank Duggan and the Coyote Bandits across a rolling expanse of cedar that soon gave way to sparse brush and cacti. They continued on across the barren landscape, following along a deep wash that meandered around outcroppings of sandstone between two rocky mesas.
The coyote moved decisively, determinedly, as if knowing exactly where to go and how to get there and the riders followed behind in the trust that it did.
Leaving the mesas behind, the coyote led them on towards a line of rocky hills in the distance. An hour later, they were making their way along a narrow trail that snaked north through the boulder-strewn hills.
The sound of a gunshot echoed out and they spurred their horses onward at a gallop. As the riders pressed forward, another shot rang out!
Clayton was leading the charge when he suddenly raised his arm and drew up his mount. The others followed suit. There before them, nestled in the flat between three hills, stood the old mining shack! They dismounted and leaving their horses behind, they approached cautiously on foot, moving with stealth from boulder to boulder.
Edgar raised his hand and signaled them to duck for cover.
Crouching low along an outcropping of sandstone, Duggan saw Daniel and Joseph Spencer scurrying towards the shack, their guns at the ready. He watched as they crept up on it and paused, checking it out.
At his brother’s signal, Joe picked up a rock and tossed it through the window. At the same instant, Daniel stormed inside. Hank clearly heard the outlaw yell ‘that’s enough!’ and his heart pounded with fear and concern for Ellie!
“We got to do something!” he said. “Ellie’s in there for sure!”
“We got to be careful.” Edgar replied. “We don’t want to do anythin’ that’s gonna get her or us killed.”
Another shot rang out and they heard a man’s scream.
“Too many gunshots in there!” Clay observed somberly.
“Come on guys, let’s move!” Hank urged. “We just can’t sit here!”
The three men moved on towards the shack keeping concealed among the rocks and boulders until they were less than ten yards away.
Inside, they could clearly hear the brothers arguing.
“Sounds like a family dispute.” Clay commented.
Edgar turned to his brother.
“Clay, you stay here an’ cover the front. Hank, you make your way around to the left. I’m gonna circle to the right an’ get as close as I can.”
Duggan opened his mouth to speak but a rebel yell and another shot rang out from the shack!
The three looked at each other in bewilderment
Hank said; “Ellie must be in there! If this turns into another damned shootin’ match, she could be killed!”
“I know that.” Edgar replied dryly. “But we ain’t got much time either. Ransom and his bunch are right behind us; you don’t think he’s deaf do you? Besides, it may not come down to a shoot-out! I got an idea.”
Clayton rested a reassuring hand on Hank’s shoulder.
“You just get around to the far side of that shack.” He said. “An’ leave the rest of it to us.”
“Let’s go.” Edgar ordered as he began to move off.
With a curse and a sigh, Hank started making his way around to the side of the building. He crawled on his belly the last few yards and crept to within only a few feet of the structure.
With his Henry at the ready, he waited nervously.
All was quiet within, except for a few muffled words that he couldn’t make out. His heart pounded and sweat dripped from his forehead as he thought about how close he was to her. She had to be just on the other side of the cabin wall! Slowly, silently, he crept still closer. Only the rotten boards of the old shack itself separated them.
He checked the Henry, peeked around the corner and waited.
Presently, Joe Spencer stepped out of the shack and into the sunlight. He turned and started off to gather the horses from where he and his brother had left them concealed.
Edgar seemed to spring up from out of nowhere! He tackled the unsuspecting kidnapper to the ground! The half-breed’s weight crushed down on top of him and a swift right to the side of his head knocked him out cold!
Moving swiftly, Edgar took the outlaw’s gun from his holster and pointed it in his face. The half-breed held his finger to his lips indicating silence and motioned with the gun for him to rise.
The stunned outlaw slowly complied.
Back inside the hut, Daniel Spencer heard the sound of the commotion outside. He moved fast. One hand went for his gun and the other grabbed Ellie by the arm.
He yanked her to her feet!
“Sorry little lady, looks like my plans have changed.” he said.
Outside, Edgar shoved his gun barrel into Joseph’s back and using him as a shield, he stepped out into the open.
“Daniel.” he yelled out. “I got your brother Joe out here!”
He paused, waiting a moment for a reply.
“I’m fixin’ to blow his head off.” he called. “You wanna talk?”
“Well I’ll be damned!” came Daniel’s reply; “You Coyote boys just keep on showin’ up, don’t ya? I take it ol’ Clayton’s out there too?”
Clayton bravely stood and stepped forward.
“I’m out here Daniel.” He answered. “Come on out an’ lets talk!”
There was silence from inside as Duggan stood there, his back against the wall, the rifle in his hand. There was no telling what would happen next.
“What can I do for you boys?” boomed Daniel’s voice from inside the shack. “You come lookin’ for a showdown?”
“We’re lookin’ for the woman.” Edgar answered. He brought up the Colt and pointed it at Joseph’s head. “We’re willin’ to trade.” he said.
Slowly, cautiously, Ellie appeared in the doorway.
She stepped out into the light followed by Edgar, who had a fast hold on her arm and his .44 pointed to her head!
Duggan peered around the corner and his heart leapt with joy at seeing her but his smile disappeared as quickly as it came. Though he was relieved to see her alive, her physical state and the sight of Daniel holding a gun to her head made his blood boil!
“Where’s that low-down killin’ brother of yours?” Edgar demanded as he cocked the pistol.
“Luke’s gone to meet his maker!”
“Was it you that sent him on his way?”
“Somebody had to.” the outlaw replied nervously. “What do you want to do Ed? There ain’t much time for hagglin’.”
“I say we call a truce.” Edgar offered. “I say we make this here trade an’ be on our way. We don’t want any shootin’. Just hand over the woman an’ I’ll turn loose of Joe.”
The outlaw didn’t move, didn’t speak, didn’t breath as he turned the situation over in his mind. He didn’t want any shooting either; there had been enough of that. Maybe this was the turning point, he reasoned, the chance to walk away from the outlaw life.
It was time to make his choice.
“I reckon it sounds fair enough to me.” He replied slowly.
“Then let the woman go!” Edgar demanded. “No tricks now.”
The two men stood motionless, each staring the other down as seconds passed. At last, a smile came over Daniel’s face. He let go of Ellie’s arm and returned his gun to its holster.
With a sigh of relief, Edgar released Joseph and handed him back his gun.
Hank Duggan stepped out from his concealment around the corner of the shack and hurried to Ellie’s side, wrapping his arms around her.
“Thank God you’re alright.” he whispered as he held her tightly.
She looked up at him through tearful eyes and he kissed her forehead tenderly. Her tears overflowed as she clung to him.
“I will be now.” She said.
Holstering his gun, Clayton stepped over to his brother and slapped him on the back, raising up a cloud of dust.
“Good work.” he said.
Knowing Daniel would prod him about the gun; Joseph holstered it and brushed the dust from his clothes. He avoided his brother’s critical eyes.
Just as he expected, Daniel stepped up and shook his head.
“I reckon what you need is a new gun.” he said with a look of disapproval. “That one keeps gettin’ away from you.”
Hank, shocked and angered by Ellie’s condition, wanted only to get her out of there!
“Come on Ellie.” he said; “We’ll get you some water.”
They had hardly turned and taken the first step when the shrill cry of a coyote pierced the air!
The animal sprang out from the rocks at full speed, becoming only a blur as it passed right through their midst! They turned as it shot by and watched in awe as it disappeared among the rocks, leaving only a cloudy trail of dust in testament to its passing.
“We got company.” Clayton warned.
Joseph drew his gun.
A shot rang out!
Joe Spencer’s hat flew up in the air and a red cloud of mist sprang from the side of his head! The outlaw’s legs buckled and he collapsed to the ground with an expression of surprise and shock on his face.
From his concealment in the rocks, Matt Ransom’s voice boomed out loud and clear;
“The next man that moves is a dead man for sure!”
Everybody froze where they stood.
The voice of Howard Pinder came from behind them.
“Drop your guns to the ground!” he ordered.
The outlaws looked back and forth at each other in despair. One by one they dropped their guns to the ground, each one falling with a thud. Slowly, they raised their hands up high.
“Where’s Luke?” Ransom demanded.
“He’s dead.” Daniel answered. “Inside the shack.”
Matt Ransom emerged from his concealment behind the rocks and stood in the open, two Peacemakers pointed at his prisoners.
“Well that’s right nice.” He said, addressing Daniel. “Looks to me like you’re the only one left.”
Howard Pinder came around the far corner of the shack behind them and carefully peeked inside the door.
“There’s one in here.” he reported. “He’s got a big hole in him!”
Training his gun on Duggan, he walked over and picked up the Henry from the ground. At the same time, Dan Blackwolf came into view from around the other side of the building. He was holding a Winchester.
“Miss Ellie!” called a familiar voice and she turned to see Digger and Miguel emerge from hiding and hurry towards her.
“Digger!” she cried. “Miguel!”
The old 49er rushed up and threw his arms around her.
“Thank God-All-Mighty you’re safe!” he cried.
“Si! We were all very worried for you.” Miguel added.
Ellie hugged the young Mexican and then turned back to Hank.
“I had a feelin’ the whole bunch of you would come!”
She gazed deeply into the eyes of her hero, the strange man that had come to her from another time and place and had risked his life to save her! She wrapped her arms around him tightly and pressed herself against him.
“I love you Hank Duggan.”
She smiled at him and then turned to Matt Ransom.
“Mr. Ransom, I want you to know that Hank Duggan and the Coyote Bandits risked their lives to save mine.”
Ransom replied without taking his eyes off of his prisoners.
“Well that was real nice of ’em Ma’am, but the Coyote’s are worth a fair amount of money to me.”
“Mr. Duggan isn’t one of the Coyotes.” she argued. “Digger an’ Miguel an’ even Mr. Aycuff back in Red Holler will testify to that! Mr. Duggan is not a wanted man. He’s a good, law abidin’ citizen and he’s my . . . my fiancé!”
The announcement took Hank by surprise.
It didn’t go unnoticed by Ransom.
“Lady, I ain’t interested in your boyfriend.” he replied irritably. “He ain’t wanted by nobody ’cept you. That’s your problem! Now if you don’t mind, I’m rather busy here!”
From the corner of his eye, Daniel could see Blackwolf off to his left. The old Indian stood firm and he held the Winchester steady. In front of him stood the Coyotes with their backs to him and their hands in the air. In front of them, stood Ransom. Pinder was off to the right, near the front of the old shack. If he could just make it past Blackwolf he thought, to the cover of the rocks behind him . . .
“Digger an’ Miguel! The two of you drag the dead one out of the shack!” Ransom ordered.
“Yes sir.” answered the old timer.
He and the Mexican turned and started towards the old shack and the moment that they passed in front of Pinder, Daniel Spencer made his move!
From his sleeve, he produced a twin-shot Derringer and swinging around, he fired both barrels at Blackwolf! The bullets hit him square in the chest and he fell backwards firing his own rifle up in the air! In the same instant, Daniel sprang for the cover of the rocks!
Duggan grabbed Ellie and dove for the ground in one swift move!
Ransom saw the Derringer come out and flash. He saw Blackwolf go down and Daniel’s dash for the rocks!
The sudden action caught the Coyotes unaware.
Edgar was the first to react!
He lunged at Matt Ransom with all the speed and force he could muster! Ransom turned and saw the half-breed coming at him. He swung around, stumbled backwards but fired his gun just in time!
The bullet stopped Edgar in mid-air as it passed through his chest but Clayton was right beside him and he tackled the bounty hunter to the ground!
By the time Pinder leveled his gun at Daniel, the outlaw had made it to the safety of the rocks! He fired anyway out of frustration! Then he spun around and brought the gun to bear on Clayton, but couldn’t fire for fear of hitting Ransom!
Digger and Miguel looked at each other and simultaneously leapt on Pinder, knocking him to the ground. One swift right from the Mexican’s powerful arm sent the bounty hunter to sleep!
Meanwhile, Clayton smashed his right fist against Ransom’s jaw but Ransom managed to get his knee up and he pushed his attacker off. He made it to his feet just as the half-breed came back at him! Grabbing him, Ransom rolled backwards and flipped him, sending Clay crashing face first to the ground!
The bounty hunter stepped up and tried to kick him, but Clay caught his boot and twisted it hard! Ransom toppled to the ground and Clayton pounced on top of him smashing his fist into the bounty hunter’s face! In a mad rage, the half-breed hit him again and again, until Ransom lay bloody and unconscious.
And then he hit him again!
As the dust settled, the rage began to clear from his sight and Clayton became painfully aware of the beating he had taken . . . as well as the one he had dished out! Around him, four men lay motionless on the ground, one of them his brother. The half-breed rose unsteadily and stumbled to his stricken brother’s side.
He was alive.
Clayton fell to his knees beside him and gently propped him in his arms as the others made their way over and gathered around.
Blood oozing from the hole in his chest, Edgar gazed up at his brother.
“Looks like the son of a bitch got me little brother.” he gasped.
Clay looked at him through tearful eyes and forced a smile.
“It ain’t as bad as it looks.” he lied.
Edgar coughed and grimaced in pain.
”Little brother, you never could lie worth a shit.”
He squeezed his brother’s hand and smiled.
“Besides, we knew damn well the trail would end this way.”
Clayton’s voice trembled. “I don’t know what words to say…”
“There are none.” The dying outlaw replied.
Edgar Big Thunder closed his eyes and began the mournful chant of his death song. Clayton looked skyward and began to pray in the Comanche tongue while Hank, Ellie and the others knelt in silent prayers of their own.
Within a matter of moments, Edgar’s song grew feeble and as the sun was setting on the western horizon; his spirit crossed over. A deathly silence hung in the air. For a long time, everyone remained still and with heads bowed.
At last, Clayton lay his brother gently down and then slowly got to his feet. He turned to Hank.
“What happened?” he asked. “Who fired that shot?”
“It was Spencer.” Hank replied; “He pulled out a little derringer. Then all hell broke loose.”
Clayton looked down again at his dead brother. An hour ago, they had been riding the trail together. Now he was gone. Death had come and it had come the way they both figured it would; it had come unexpectedly.
“It’s usually what you don’t expect that kills you.” He said. “Coyote played tricks on a lot of people today.”
He looked at Hank and then seemingly past him.
“And I don’t think he’s done yet.”
The half-breed stepped over and slapped his hand on Hank’s shoulder. “You see that coyote over there?” Clayton directed Hank’s eyes to the top of the adjacent rocky hill. There, on its crest, the animal sat, silhouetted by the rising moon.
“I see him.” Duggan replied.
The half-breed smiled.
” The old man has a message for you. He says you will soon have to decide which world you want to live in.” Clay said. “If I were you, I’d take the woman back to that ranch.”
“Make a home, find peace an’ be happy.” He said with authority. “That’s all a man can hope for, all a man really needs.”
“What about you?”
“The old man says it’s time for me to take a little ride.” Clay explained. “I think he wants me to follow him on down to Mexico for a spell. Ransom an’ Pinder won’t give up the chase. Now that I’ve really pissed them off, they won’t rest.”
Ellie Masters stepped up and wrapped her arms around him hugging the stunned outlaw tightly. She looked up at him with tears in her eyes.
“God bless you, Clayton Big Thunder.” she said. “My door will always be open to you.”
“Thank you Ma’am, I’ll remember that.” the half-breed replied. “I’ll be takin’ my brother along with me. I’ll see that he is buried in the Comanche way.”
“As it should be.” Ellie said. “We’ll help you.”
Gently and with great care, they helped him wrap his brother’s body in a blanket. They carried him to his horse and bound him securely over the saddle. When they were done, Clay turned to Digger and Miguel and offered them his hand.
“I’d appreciate it if you boys would make sure Ransom an’ Pinder are tied up real good. You can put ’em in the shack with the dead. That ought to suit ’em just fine.” He said.
“We’ll surely do what you say Mr. Big Thunder.” Digger answered respectfully.
Lastly, Clay turned to Duggan and offered up his hand.
“I am glad to have known you time traveler.” he said with a smile.
“Good luck, my friend.” Duggan replied.
Without another word, the outlaw turned and mounted up. Then, with a final wave of goodbye, Clayton Big Thunder reined his horse around and started off. The others stood and watched him until he disappeared from their sight.
Hank Duggan turned to Ellie.
“It’s all over now.” He said, his hand caressing her cheek. “Digger an’ Miguel will clean up around here. It’s getting’ dark out an’ you need rest. We’ll lay out the bed rolls an’ get some sleep an’ in the mornin’ we’ll all head back.”
She looked into his eyes and shook her head sadly.
“No Hank, I don’t want to stay here.” She said hesitantly.
“Then we won’t.” he replied. “It’ll be a moonlit night and there ain’t anybody chasin’ after us anymore. We’ll have a nice peaceful ride an’ when we get tired, we’ll make camp.”
“Yes, anywhere but here.” She said. She buried her face in his bosom and wept.
“You two go on ahead.” Digger said reassuringly. “Me an’ Miguel can clean up this mess an’ then one of us’ll ride into Durango an’ let the Sheriff know that them headhunters are out here.”
Hank turned and looked back at the hilltop where the coyote had appeared.
It was gone.