Chapter 3: At the Oasis Ranch
They had been walking all day in the heat of the sun. It was now mid-afternoon and the three exhausted men crouched upon a high ridge. They looked out at a little oasis of green running along a small, spring fed creek that meandered through the valley below them. There, a small adobe ranch house sat cradled by a bend in the creek; faint wisps of smoke were trailing up from the chimney.
It was as picturesque a scene as any man could ask for.
Still, Duggan noted the absence of a road, telephone poles, electric wires, vehicles or machinery of any sort.
“There’s food, horses and guns down there.” Clayton was saying. “I say we go down an’ pay ’em a little visit.”
Duggan didn’t particularly like what he was hearing.
“Now wait a minute.” He said, “If you guys are thinking what I think you’re thinking then I’m not getting involved! If that’s the case, you two can just go down there by yourselves.”
“What do you suggest?” Edgar asked, “We just keep movin on?”
“No.” Hank replied, “But did you ever think of just asking for help? You know, most decent people would be more than willing to lend a hand if you ask them. Robbery just ain’t right and I don’t want any part in it.”
Edgar looked over at his brother who shook his head and laughed. “Well then, I’ll tell you what . . . me an’ Clay here, we’re goin’ on down there!” He gestured towards the ranch below. “You can come with us or you can stay right where you’re at.”
Clay had already risen and started walking down into the valley. Edgar rose and fell in step behind him. Being hungry and thirsty and not knowing what else to do, Hank swore under his breath and followed after them.
The men were silent as they plodded along except for a few times when, for some strange reason known only to himself, Clayton would burst out laughing!
Hank was beginning to wonder about him.
Almost as if he’d been reading his mind, Edgar broke the silence.
“Maybe you think that my brother is crazy?”
Hank shot a look at the expressionless face that studied his own.
“Right now I’m not really sure what I think.” He replied.
“My brother was in training to become what you might call a medicine man, one who can commune with the spirit world.” Edgar said as he moved closer. “He learned from a man named White Buffalo, a holy man of the Comanche people. That is, until one day when he was killed by drunken white men. ”
A silence followed. Had he finished or was there more?
“My brother and I are half-breeds.” He continued. “Our father was once a great warrior of the Comanche and our mother was a white woman. She had been taken as a young girl and became one of the people. After our band had submitted to life on the reservation, she refused to leave her husband and return to her white family.”
“It must have been difficult for you.”
“Difficult?” Edgar replied, “Our father withered away and died from whiskey and a broken soul. More than half of the tribe died of starvation or sickness on the reservation.”
“After our father died, our mother finally left the reservation and returned with us, to her white family. My brother and I didn’t want to go. Clay an’ I grew up in two worlds, first the world of the Comanche and then the world of the white man.”
Again, the reality of the situation raised its ugly head.
Hank knew that ruthless westward expansion produced the Indian wars, broken treaties and the herding of entire peoples onto reservations that were in actuality, nothing less than concentration camps.
If this really was the past, then all the pain and suffering of it wouldn’t be just words on the pages of a history book anymore. That past would be going on in the present.
“I’m sorry to hear that Ed.” Hank replied.
The half-breed’s eyes met his for only an instant and then looked away. “Our mother’s people never really accepted me or my brother. They cut off our hair and we were not allowed to speak our language anymore. They wanted us to reject the teachings of our grandfathers and to believe in their God. They had stolen our land and our freedom and they wanted to steal our spirits as well.”
Hank found himself feeling sympathy for the man.
“It was a terrible thing they did to your people.” He replied.
He knew his history. He’d always felt it was a terrible thing that the white race did to all of the native peoples they encountered wherever in the world they traveled. It would still be going on in the 21st century!
“I remember how my mother was treated by many of the whites.” The half-breed said. ”I remember how their actions and words hurt her, cut into her like a knife, but her will was strong. She had become a true Comanche!”
Duggan remained silent.
“My brother and I learned to read an’ write.” Edgar continued. “We both read stories about Quantril’s Raiders, the Younger brothers an’ the James gang. We figured we were smart enough to beat the white man at his own game! We would follow his example and simply take the things that we wanted!”
“I can understand how you feel.” Said Duggan, “But two wrongs don’t make it right, Ed.”
“Right or wrong, doesn’t matter!” Edgar said sharply. “We set out one day with our minds made up that that was what we would do. Soon, we became known as the Coyote Bandits and we’re good at what we do!”
Duggan looked over at him.
“I get it.” he replied, “You’re good at bein’ bad!”
The man was either one hell of an actor, or he meant every word he’d said. Maybe this whole thing was real, and then maybe it wasn’t!
Edgar shook his head and laughed. “I can plainly see that you understand nothing!” He said. “I knew you wouldn’t.”
The ranch seemed like a cozy little place as the three men walked up on it. The small, adobe house stood among a grouping of White Birch and Oak trees near the creek. The continual sound of the water burbling over and around the rocks created a soothing, peaceful atmosphere.
The house itself looked neat and clean, comfortable and inviting. There were a couple of old wagon wheels on either side of the steps leading up to the veranda and above the door itself was a little wooden sign that said, ‘welcome to the Oasis Ranch.’
“I’ve developed a sure dislike of wagon wheels lately.” Clay commented as they walked up. “Give our regards to whom it may concern.”
“We’re headin straight for the creek!” Edgar replied as he passed by the house and continued along a footpath that meandered down to the edge of the creek. Clay followed him. When they reached the clear, flowing water, the two men instantly plunged right in! There they were, whooping and hollering
Hank stood in front of the house and looked on.
Who had taught these guys manners? They just made themselves right at home, like they owned the place! They were splashing and hollering and carrying on like a couple of . . . Indians! Surely whoever’s inside the house can hear them!
Remembering the conversation on the ridge, it occurred to him that he ought to knock on the door and introduce himself to the folks that owned the place. It would be best for him to make the first contact, to break the ice, before the Coyotes had a chance to do it their way!
Hank shook his head and sighed.
When he turned back to the house, he found himself looking down the bore of an old Army Colt .44! The hand that held the gun belonged to a woman . . . a beautiful woman!
She appeared to be about forty, standing a little over five and a half feet tall. Though it was covered up with a well-worn pair of men’s overalls, she had a shapely figure that could sure turn a man’s head! Her eyes were big, round and blue-green, her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. She wore no make-up on her face, but she didn’t need any! She had a natural beauty that was quite stunning.
“H-hello there.” Hank stammered, raising up his arms. “There’s no need to be pointing that thing at me.”
“I’ll be the judge of that mister!” The woman replied. It was plain to see that she wasn’t about to take any chances with these strangers. “What do you men want?”
Better keep it simple and to the point, Hank thought to himself.
“I should apologize for my noisy friends. We got held up and left stranded in the desert east of here. We’ve been footin’ it all day in the hot sun and that creek sure looks inviting.” He smiled, slowly taking off his hat. “All we need is some water and some rest, or whatever you might be generous enough to offer.”
She looked him up and down, noting the tight fit of his jeans and the pointed toes of his boots.
“My name is Hank Duggan.” He offered.
The woman seemed to ease up a little bit.
“I’m Ellie Masters. I own the place.” she said, lowering the pistol slightly. “I reckon I could make you some coffee.”
“That would be real nice ma’am.” he replied.
“You men better not be lookin’ fer trouble, cause I’ll sure as hell give it to ya!” she raised the gun again for emphasis.
“No ma’am, we wouldn’t want to be any trouble.” Hank answered.
“Then quit yer smilin’ at me!” she said sternly, “You can smile all you like at Sanchez there!”
She motioned behind him with the gun and he turned.
A few yards behind him, crouched and ready to attack, was one of the biggest, meanest looking dogs he had ever seen! It was huge and wolf-like, its black and gray coat covered with dust. Its sharp, yellow teeth were bared, its muscles tensed. The creature’s eyes were locked upon him and it let out a low, threatening growl from deep within its throat!
“I suggest you don’t make any sudden moves.” Ellie warned as she turned and disappeared back inside the house.
Duggan wasn’t about to move.
The way the dog had sneaked up on him had been much more cat-like than canine. The animal remained poised, just waiting for the wrong move. Every now and then, it would glance over in the direction of the two men in the creek.
“So you’re Sanchez eh?” Hank spoke in a low, soft voice. “I bet you’re a good ol’ boy aren’t you?”
The animal remained still and ready, emitting another growl and baring his teeth to let Hank know that he meant business.
Just then Ellie returned to the doorway, the Colt still in hand.
“I got some coffee makin.” she said, “I might find somethin’ for you all to eat, if you behave yourselves! In the meantime, you might as well join your two friends down at the creek.”
“That’s real nice of you, we sure appreciate that ma’am.”
Seeing that he was hesitant to move, Ellie called off the dog.
“Sanchez! Come here boy!”
With his eyes glued to Hank, the huge animal slowly moved around him. He moved up the steps and onto the veranda where he lay down at Ellie’s feet. Hank resisted smiling at her again. He returned his hat to his head and headed off towards the creek.
One thing was certain; he could discard the truck theft theory. There was no way this could all be an elaborate deception for the sole purpose of stealing an empty tractor-trailer! It looked like he really was back in the Old West! The evidence was all around him and just kept on piling up.
There was Edgar and Clay’s clothing, behavior and beliefs, Ellie’s dress, her mannerisms and that old cap and ball six-shooter! No, these were certainly not people of the twenty-first century. Besides that, he had just spent the whole day walking across the desert and hadn’t seen a single sign of any roads, electric or telephone lines, or even a contrail in the sky!
As his doubts faded away, what dawned on him was the realization that he would have to figure out how he got there, if he ever hoped to get back! If there were some kind of doorway or entry point, he would have to try to find it!
And then again, there was the possibility that he just might not ever get back!
He approached the creek and stood at its edge, under the shade afforded by the branches of an old Oak tree on the bank. The two brothers had finished bathing and sat naked on a dry jut of rock. Articles of their clothing were hung on branches and draped over nearby rocks or bushes to dry in the sun.
“We were wonderin’ how long it would take you to tear yourself away from that woman.” Clay said.
“You like that woman, Mr. Duggan?” Edgar asked.
Here we go, Hank thought to himself; these two are starting to show their true colors. Already they were thinking about the woman! Though the woman seemed strong willed and armed, these two men were notorious outlaws! Hank realized the possibility that he could very well find himself having to stand up against them in order to defend her.
“She seems very nice.” He replied casually. “She’s fixing us some food and coffee.”
“Well that’s right nice of her, ain’t it Clay?”
“It sure is Ed.”
“Tell me somethin’ mister Duggan;” said Edgar. “If she suits you, why don’t you just go back up there and take her?”
“Do what?” Hank looked at him in disbelief.
“Just go up there and take what you want from her!” the half-breed replied.
Duggan didn’t like what he was hearing and was taken aback by the outlaw’s crude suggestion.
“Well, for starters, she’s got a gun!” he responded. “Besides, what the hell kind of a man are you anyway to even suggest such a thing?”
Edgar slipped off the rock and lowered himself back into the cool water of the creek.
“While you were up there, me an’ my brother were talkin’ about right and wrong and such.” Said the outlaw. “Seems you started us to thinkin’. You seem to be the judgmental sort of man. Seems like you don’t approve of the way we do things.”
‘I certainly don’t believe in goin’ around robbin’ an’ stealin’ an’ hurtin’ people, if that’s what you mean!” Hank replied.
“But isn’t that the white man’s way?” the half-breed asked, noting that Duggan was visibly taken aback by the question.
“It makes no difference whether you’re black or white or red or purple for that matter!” Hank answered. “What you’re talking about is born out of pure ignorance and a lack of morality!”
“Don’t talk to us about morality!” Edgar shot back in anger, “If I chose to go up there and take that woman, then that’s just what I would do! That’s just what the white man does to the land, to the animals, to the Indian people! They have no respect for anything, except for their own desires!”
“Go tell it to the politicians and the industrialists!” Hank replied, standing his ground. “I said it before and I’m sayin’ it again; two wrongs don’t make a right!”
Edgar, clearly angered, opened his mouth to speak, but Clayton motioned to him to let it go.
Hank knelt down at the edge of the creek and splashed some of the cool water over his face. He didn’t like what he had heard, especially the part about the woman! Suddenly, before he realized what he was saying, he was saying it . . .
“You boys can forget about disrespecting that woman.” He warned. “You’ll have to deal with me first!”
Hank looked straight at Edgar as he spoke and their eyes locked together. The only sound was the trickling of the water as they stared each other down.
Clayton broke the silence.
“If I were you,” he said, “I would take advantage of having this nice creek in which to cool yourself off an’ clean up some.”
“I meant what I said.” Hank warned.
“So did my brother.” Clay replied.
Duggan remained silent.
What had he got himself into with these guys?
Still kneeling by the side of the clear water, he cupped some of it in his hands and drank. It tasted good. He removed his shirt, dipped it in the water and wrung it out several times before hanging it on a tree branch to dry in the sun. Then he stripped off his boots and jeans and slipped into the icy water.
For nearly twenty minutes, nobody spoke.
The afternoon sun quickly dried the wet clothing and when the men finished their ablutions, they dressed in silence. Their jaunt in the creek had done them a world of good. They felt rested and refreshed and their personal appearance had been greatly improved.
Feeling a lot better, they headed back up towards the house.
Along the way, Hank spoke up. “You guys remember what I said back there.” he warned, “And you better give a wide berth to that dog of hers too!”
“You worry too much.” Clay said as they approached the house.
Sure enough, Sanchez was sitting on the porch right in front of the door and when the three came walking up, he growled and bared his teeth!
“His name is Sanchez.” said Hank, “He doesn’t like strangers.”
Hank and Edgar both stood transfixed in front of the house, but Clayton Big Thunder bravely moved towards the animal. Moving slowly and speaking softly in his native tongue, he held his hand out to the creature. Amazingly, the animal did nothing! He simply sat there, his ears perked up, his big, brown eyes staring into Clay’s.
Then, to Hank’s amazement, the half-breed squatted down beside the animal and began to stroke his coat!
“You have to know how to talk to them.” Clay said with a smile. “He likes me well enough, but I’m not so sure about you two!”
“Well I ain’t ever seen old Sanchez let a man do that!”
The words came from behind them and took Hank and Edgar by surprise. Two men had emerged from inside the nearby stable and were walking towards them. One was a young Mexican of about eighteen years or so with a muscular build. He wore only a dirty pair of overalls.
The one that had spoken was a much older man. His gray hair and beard were unkempt, his hat bent and frayed, but his thin form still appeared spry and on his hip he wore an old navy Colt.
“The name’s Ryan.” The old man smiled revealing several missing teeth. “But you can call me Digger!”
He slapped his hand on the younger man’s shoulder.
“This here is Miguel. The both of us work fer Mrs. Masters.”
”Si, we look after her too!” added the Mexican, his dark eyes suspiciously looking the two half-breeds over.
At that moment, the front door opened and Ellie Masters stepped onto the porch. “I see you met Digger an’ Miguel.” She said. “Don’t know what I’d do without ’em.”
She looked at the two half-breeds and then at Hank. “You men can come on inside now an’ have something to eat.”
The men stepped up onto the veranda and entered the house followed by Digger and Miguel and lastly, Sanchez.
Once inside, Hank removed his hat and spoke up. “Mrs. Masters, this here is Edgar and his brother Clayton.”
The brothers politely removed their hats and nodded in acknowledgment, but didn’t say anything.
“There’s coffee here, some eggs and bacon, some bread and butter.” she said gesturing towards a table. “You men can pull up a chair and be seated.”
We seated ourselves at the table. The two half-breeds exchanged questioning glances and then proceeded to dig right in like the hungry men that they were.
Hank turned an apologetic eye to Ellie Masters.
Much to his relief, other than their display of gluttony, the two brothers behaved themselves rather well. He figured it was probably due to the presence of Digger and Miguel. The two outlaws were getting what they needed, if not what they would have helped themselves to and if they did try anything, they’d have a lot to contend with.
As the meal progressed, nobody spoke much, except for Digger, who kept going on about his days prospecting for gold in California. Once, Hank caught Ellie staring at him but then she quickly looked away when their eyes met. The second time it happened, he smiled at her and she spoke, but she addressed Edgar, who was seated beside him.
“Mr. Duggan has told me that you were held up out there in the desert and left stranded.”
Edgar glanced over at Hank.
“It is what happened.” He replied. “They came upon us by surprise! They robbed us and took our guns an’ horses. Then they tied us up an’ left us out there to die. I’m surprised they didn’t just kill us.”
Having answered the question, he returned his attention to his meal. A silence ensued, and then Clayton spoke up.
“We got loose and then made our way to this place.”
Having said that, he returned his attention back to his own plate. Both he and his brother had learned long ago not to offer anybody any more information than was necessary and none if it weren’t any of their business.
Ellie looked over at Hank and then continued eating her own meal. She didn’t ask any more questions and Hank was grateful for that, mostly because he didn’t want to have to tell her any lies. He liked her and figured that the best thing he could for her was to get the two outlaws to leave as soon as possible, without them stealing anything or causing any trouble!
When the meal was concluded, Ellie asked Digger to show the men out to the bunkhouse, where they could bed down for the evening. The sun had set and the first stars were beginning to show in the sky as they walked out beyond the stable and corral to the bunkhouse.
The place was small, nothing more than a two-room shack. One side was clearly occupied by Digger and Miguel. The other side was dusty and cobwebbed and had obviously gone unused for quite some time.
“I’ve been meanin’ to do some fixin’ up around the place.” Digger said. “But it suits me an’ Miguel just fine.”
“Suits us just fine as well.” Edgar replied.
The old timer reached for an oil lamp that hung on a peg in the wall. He lit it up and adjusted it, illuminating the room. The only furnishings were two dusty sets of crude bunk beds and a cobwebbed wooden chair that stood next to an old table by the window. One of the table’s legs was broken and had been repaired with what looked like an old broom handle cut to length. Under it sat a battered travel trunk.
“You boys make yourselves at home. There’s some blankets in the trunk.” Digger said as he turned to leave. “I’ll be back later on but I’ll be quiet about it.”
Hank offered him his hand.
“Please tell Mrs. Masters that we appreciate her kindness.”
“Will do.” Replied the old timer.
He bid the men goodnight and disappeared out the door.