Coyote Trail

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Chapter 25: A Choice of Two Worlds

Hank Duggan and Ellie Masters mounted up and headed straight south into the stillness of the moonlit night. It felt good not being on the run or chasing after anyone for a change, Hank thought. As issues to be dealt with, the Coyote Bandits, the Spencer brothers, Ransom and his riders, were no more. Now he could begin to address his own situation. Finally, he would have the time to recuperate, to think and to get his plans together.

As he rode along, he began wondering about where to begin his search for the passageway that would lead him back to his own time. How does one go about locating a time portal?

Theoretically, such a doorway would be at the point at which he entered the current time frame. That would mean he’d have to go back and try to locate the place where the truck had disappeared and where he first saw the coyote.

Could he do that?

And then another thought suddenly entered his mind. What if the portal had moved, or closed?

And what about Ellie?

Was he really willing to return back to his own time without her? Would she be willing to give up her land and everything she ever knew to go with him? It was something they hadn’t discussed, hadn’t even considered.

If he managed to find the way back, and if she was willing to go with him, how would it affect her? Wasn’t it quite possible that for her, dealing with life in the twenty-first century could prove too much? Hell, come to think of it, did he really want to return there?

He looked over at her, slumped in the saddle, worn out and covered in dust. Still, she was beautiful in his eyes.

She turned and looked back at him, forcing a smile.

“Ellie, you’re beat!” He said to her, “Let’s just hold up right here and get some rest. We can move on in the morning.”

She brought her mount to a halt.

“You’re right.” She replied; “right here’s just fine.”

Duggan swung down from his saddle and then came around and helped her down from hers. He hitched the horses to a nearby clump of squat cedar and went about pulling their saddles. He soon returned with a blanket and a canteen. She took a long drink while he ceremoniously spread the blanket on the desert floor.

She sat herself down and he sat down beside her, wrapping his arm around her shoulder. She smiled, closed her eyes with a sigh and rested her head upon his chest.

How could he ask her to leave her own world? It wouldn’t be right. He remembered what she’d said to him that day back at the ranch;

’Maybe your dream is right here Hank, in this time an’ place.’

Well, maybe it was. Maybe this was the way things were really supposed to work out.

“Hank?”

The sound of her voice interrupted his thoughts.

“Hank, what’s that light over there?” she asked.

She pointed out a faint, red glow that seemed to emanate from just beyond the next rise. At first it didn’t register, but then it dawned on him that the light was blinking on and off. As Duggan looked on, he noticed something else.

He could just make out the silhouette of a coyote on the crest of the rise. It sat motionless, its eyes aglow, watching him, waiting for him.

Suddenly realization struck him!

“It’s an electric light!” he cried. “It shouldn’t be there!”

He scrambled to his feet and took off for the crest of the rise! It seemed to take forever to get there and his legs tired quickly. When he finally made it to the top, he could hardly believe his eyes!

There spread out before him, in the middle of nowhere, stood the Coyote Inn diner and the old gas station! The familiar red, neon sign silently blinked the words food and fuel into the night.

A movement to his right caught his eye and he saw the coyote as it scurried down the other side of the rise and headed towards the diner! It halted mid-way and looked back at him.

The silver dining car glistened like some alien object that didn’t fit into its surroundings. Next to it, the filling station also seemed otherworldly, like it didn’t belong there either. Seeing the place from behind for the first time, Hank examined the yard. It was littered with several rusty, old auto hulks, spare parts and worn-out tires. There was an old Airstream camper sitting up on concrete blocks behind the garage.

But what was it doing here?

He was sure he’d left the diner and driven on for quite a while before the ‘change’ or whatever it was, took place! He’d pulled off on the shoulder and gotten out of the truck when it happened. Or had it?

The old man had talked about getting ‘swallowed up’ by the desert. That old man wasn’t so crazy after all! The old truck stop could hold the answers he was looking for.

Hank started forward but checked himself. What if he went down there and somehow wound up back where he started, without Ellie? It was a chance he was unwilling to take! It would be best to go back and get her and stay together.

The coyote barked its impatience.

“Just a minute.” Hank answered. “I forgot somethin’.”

He turned and started back down the sandy slope.

“Ellie!” he called, “I want you to come an’ see this!”

There was no reply.

He trudged on, looking all around in vain.

She was not to be seen.

“Ellie!” he cried out in desperation; “where are you?”

He called again and again into the night but there was no answer. Everything had changed somehow and he found himself alone. There was nothing, not a trace or a track to attest that she or the horses had ever been there! Ellie Masters had simply ceased to exist.

It was happening all over again!

Once again Hank found himself being swept along by some strange force that he couldn’t understand. Again, reality had transformed itself around him in the blinking of an eye!

Heartbroken and defeated, he trudged back up the rise. In every way exhausted, he fell to his knees and looked out at the old truck stop and its blinking neon light. There was nothing else to do but resign himself to the reality of the situation. Everything had changed again and that’s all there was to it!

Hank Duggan got to his feet and started slowly down the slope towards the diner. A single floodlight illuminated the parking lot out in front, but the back of the place was dark and so he approached with stealth. There were lights on inside the diner but other than that, there were no signs of life.

Stepping up to the back door of the diner, he tried the latch.

The door opened, creaking on rusty hinges as he stepped inside.

He found himself standing between what appeared to be two storage rooms, their shelves bare and cobwebbed. Before him, the service counter was covered with dust and its shelves and bins were likewise, dusty and full of cobwebs.

Stepping up and checking the old cash register, he found that it was empty. The place obviously hadn’t seen use in years, yet nearly every light in the place was on. It just didn’t make any sense!

And where was the old man?

Emerging from behind the counter, Hank surveyed the room. The booths were worn and tattered, tables were warped and rotten. Some of the windows had been broken out and the frayed and faded curtains moved with the desert breeze.

A look through the entryway revealed that the front door had been boarded shut. Apparently, the place had deteriorated since his last visit, but then, how long ago had that been?

Resignedly, he sat himself down on a nearby swivel stool, the same one he’d sat in before. His thoughts turned to Ellie Masters and the realization that he wouldn’t ever see her again. Tears began welling up in the corners of his eyes when he realized how much he missed her already.

He had found her, fallen in love with her and risked his life to save her, only to have her snatched away from him in an instant! His heart weighed heavy as he wiped away the tears.

“Found your way back I see.” came a voice from behind!

At the sound of old man’s voice, Hank jumped up, swung around and drew his gun all in one motion!

The old man stood in the back doorway.

“That looked pretty good.” he said with a laugh. “You might just have the makin’s after all!”

“Maybe you shouldn’t sneak up on a man.” Hank said flatly.

“You can put that pistol away!” said the old man, obviously unshaken at staring down the barrel of a gun. “What do you think this is, the Wild West?”

The old timer laughed but Hank didn’t see anything funny in the situation. He stood there staring into the old man’s face and then suddenly it dawned on him. Of course! There was no way of him knowing it before, but now it was obvious! Old Matthew and Matt Ransom was one and the same person!

His gun hand trembled and his anger fumed.

“I’ve just about had it with your nonsense!” he said. “You can start answerin’ some questions Mr. Ransom, or I just might use this gun!”

The old man stood firm and looked him straight in the eye.

“I figured you’d recognize me. Go ahead an’ pull the trigger if that’s what you’re gonna do.” he said in challenge to Duggan’s hand. “The only person that’ll regret it is you!”

Matthew defiantly walked past Hank, ignoring the gun pointed at him and sat himself down in one of the old booths.

“What are you?” demanded Hank. “How can you be back there an’ here at the same time? What’s goin’ on?”

“This place an’ I are ghosts Mr. Duggan,” the old man replied. “We’re lost in time and space.”

Duggan eyed him up and down.

“Well you look real enough to me.” he said.

The two men stared at each other, eye to eye.

“You knew what was about to happen to me when I first came in here, didn’t you?” asked Hank. “You could’a warned me but instead, you gave me the crazy old man routine!”

“Warn you?” Matthew replied; “I warned you plenty but you thought I was crazy, didn’t you? You wouldn’t have believed me if I’d have told you anyway! What was I supposed to say? ’Hey, don’t go back out there ‘cause you’ll go through a time portal?’”

Keeping his gun in hand, Hank stepped over and slid into the booth across from Matthew.

“You got a lot of explainin’ to do old man.” He insisted.

Old Matt Ransom pushed his tattered hat back on his head and smiled at Hank.

“You’ve changed your mind, haven’t you? Now you wanna hear my story! Well I can tell you this . . . it’s a mighty good one.”

Finally, the old man had an audience, someone to talk to who had been there, who would understand. Someone who had experienced the phenomena themselves! It felt strange somehow, to be able to talk about it freely to someone.

“You’re right, there is some kind’a doorway out there an’ it leads right back to the days of the Old West.” He began. “Every now an’ then, I guess when the conditions are just right, it opens up! Any livin’ thing that passes through it, passes through time! The bad thing about it is that it moves, jumps around, doesn’t often return to the same spot!”

The old man laughed.

“I was born in 1941 Mr. Duggan, two months before the Japs hit Pearl Harbor! This was my parent’s place. Me an’ my brother grew up helpin’ out around here.”

“So you’re a time traveler yourself!”

“I was.” Matthew replied; “One night, back in 1961, I got in my father’s pickup truck and pulled out onto the highway. I was goin’ on a date, gonna pick up a pretty young gal. Never made it. The next thing I knew, I had gone through it the same as you! Thing was, I never figured out how the hell I got to where I wound up! There I was, a young kid of twenty years old, trapped nearly a hundred years in the past! What was I supposed to do?”

“What did you do?” Hank asked.

“I headed on down into Texas and lived the life of a cowboy! Oh, it was rough alright; I had a lot to learn! After awhile, I got used to it, even started likin’ it. Then one night in Dodge City, I found out that I could make a lot more money as a bounty hunter than I ever would at cowboyin’ an’ so I started doin’ that! Again, I had a lot to learn, but I got real good at it an’ built up quite a reputation!”

The old man sat up and leaned over the table towards Hank.

“You know, I met none other than Bat Masterson that night!”

The old coot burst out laughing, much to Duggan’s annoyance. He slid out of the booth, stood up and returned the Colt to his holster.

“So what happened then?” he asked.

Ransom continued;

“Every few years, I’d go back to look for the spot where I crossed over. I’d spend days just wandering around the desert, not even knowin’ what it was I was lookin’ for! Then one day either I found it or it found me, one or the other! There I was, walkin’ around out in the desert, when I thought I heard the sound of a jet flyin’ overhead . . . I couldn’t believe my ears!”

Matthew pointed a crooked finger up at the ceiling.

“I looked up and there it was, a jet airplane! It was the year 2004 when I got back an’ I was all of 69 years old! That was five years ago. You should’a seen my brothers face when I showed up after all that time! It just about gave him a heart attack!”

Old Matthew waved his arm to indicate the room around him.

“Well, this place still belongs to me an’ my brother an’ his family. They live not too far from here. They bring me supplies an’ such ev’ry so often. They think I’m crazy for the stories I tell ‘em an’ for wantin’ to stay out here an’ live in the old trailer out back. I told ’em I don’t need all them so-called modern conveniences like they all do! I like it just fine here all by myself.”

“Let me get this straight.” Hank slid back into the booth and leaned toward Matthew. “You’re sayin’ that I’m back where I started . . . and it’s just dumb luck that I’m back in the twenty-first century.”

The old man laughed again.

“You’re a lucky man Mr. Duggan.” he replied. “You’re lucky to have found your way back here an’ lucky to be standin’ in what ya might call, a space between two worlds!”

“What do you mean?”

Old Matt Ransom leaned closer.

“When I went over, I was ignorant of how I got there or how to get back. I stayed ‘cause I had no choice. I adapted to it an’ lived a life that went with the times! You’re a lucky man because you sir, have a choice!”

He slapped his hand on the table to emphasize his point.

“What are you talkin’ about?” Hank insisted.

“The lights are on Mr. Duggan! There’s been no power connected to the place for years now! Where do you think those light bulbs are getting the power from? I ain’t certain, but I’d say they’re drawin’ it from the electromagnetic field of the time portal! The last time that happened was the night you first came through here! That’s how I knew you’d pass through it when you got back on the road. It’s there, just out by the pull-off. There’s one in back of the place too. There’s kind’a like a front door an’ a back door to it! Until those lights go off, we’re both stuck right between two riffs in the space-time continuum, so to speak.”

Hank looked at the old man in astonishment.

“How do you know all that?” he asked.

“I can read, Mr. Duggan!” Matthew answered. “I’ve been readin’ up about these sort of things since I been back!”

At that point, Hank remembered something Clayton had said to him, something about having to make a choice about which world he wanted to live in!

By God, Old Man Coyote had been right!

“So I can choose to go either way?”

“Or you can wait until these lights go out an’ then it won’t matter worth a damn! The window of opportunity will have closed! You’ll be back in the twenty-first century and that’ll be the end of it.” Matthew replied. “If I were you, I’d make up my mind pronto!”

Inside his head, a clock started ticking. Suddenly time was running out and Hank Duggan was on the spot! Which world did he really want to live in? It was time to make the biggest decision of his life!

The first thing that came to his mind was Ellie Masters and the thought brought joy to his heart and stirred his soul! There was really no decision to be made and certainly no time to be wasted in taking action!

With a smile he slid out of the booth and stood up.

“There’s someone I met back at the Oasis Ranch that I’d like to spend the rest of my life with.” he said. “I reckon that I’ll be headin’ back about a hundred years!”

Old Matthew looked up at him and smiled.

“I think you’re gonna find you made the right choice Mr. Duggan.”

The old man got up from the booth and stepping up to Hank, offered him his hand.

“See that you both have a good life together.” He said.

At that moment, the shrill cry of the coyote rose up from out back!

“Well, get the hell out’a here before it’s too late!” Ransom warned.

Hank shook old Matthew’s hand and then headed straight for the back door! Swinging it open, he stepped outside. Only a few yards away, the coyote wagged its tail and danced! The animal beckoned him to follow and then took off towards the rise!

Duggan took off at a run!

Trudging up the sandy slope of the rise, Hank’s legs tired quickly and he was running out of breath when he paused momentarily. He glanced back to see old Matthew standing in the yard waving at him and motioning him on!

Turning to the crest of the rise, he saw the coyote was already there, rising up on hind legs and barking at him! Ignoring the pain and the straining of his muscles, he pushed his body forward and continued on. Topping the rise, he paused again to catch his breath before starting down the other side.

“Hank!” cried Ellie’s voice! “Oh Hank!”

The sound was sweet music to his ears and he felt a burst of adrenaline rush through his blood! He thrust himself forward, stumbled, and then tumbled down the slope of the rise!

Suddenly he could see her, running towards him!

“Hank!” she cried again and suddenly she was there! He stumbled forward and collapsed into her arms! He clutched her tightly to him and together, they tumbled to the ground.

“I thought you were gone!” she was saying. “I thought I’d lost you forever!”

He kissed her face, her wonderful, beautiful face over and over again!

“You ain’t ever gonna get rid of me, Ellie Masters!” he said.

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