Chapter 7: The Trail Heats up
Howard Pinder and Ted Morgan spent the night in the bunkhouse and rose up before first light. They saddled up their horses and headed straight for Red Holler, riding in well before noon. In front of the general store, they tied their mounts to the hitching post and looked around.
“Not much of a town.” Pinder said as he brushed dust from his clothes.
The two men stepped up onto the boardwalk and entered the store. As they walked in, Doobie Acuff took one look at them and correctly figured their game.
“You boys’re after them low down half-breeds aren’t ya?” he asked.
“You seen ’em?” inquired Pinder.
“Hell, they come through here yesterday around noon!” exclaimed the old storekeeper, “Three of 'em robbed me. Took supplies, guns and ammo and they stole three horses from the livery!”
“Anybody get hurt?” Red asked.
“Joe Dent got a knot on the head and they left me tied and gagged, but there weren’t any bloodshed.” Doobie replied. “They took off out ’a here like hellfire and headed south!”
“You say there’s three of ’em?” Morgan asked.
“There was two half-breeds and another man.” Acuff paused a moment in thought. “Strange sort of feller too! He was quiet, nervous, didn’t act like no outlaw! He was real, reluctant like.”
Pinder and Morgan looked at each other. Who the hell was this third man and why was he traveling with the Big Thunder brothers?
“Well, that’s pretty much what we figured.” Howard said to Pinder. “They got horses and supplies and they’re armed! We’re gonna have to ride hard and be careful now! We better get a move on.”
Without another word, the two men turned and walked out on the boardwalk followed by Acuff.
“You boys wouldn’t be ridin’ for Matt Ransom would ya?” Acuff asked excitedly. ”I heard he’s around these parts huntin’ down the Spencer brothers!”
“News gets around, don’t it?” Red commented to no one in particular as he and Pinder unhitched their horses and mounted up.
“We’re with Ransom alright.” Pinder replied. “Which way did they ride out of here?”
“I didn’t see em ride out mind you.” Acuff replied. “But other folks that did said they took off headin’ South!”
The two men swung their horses around and then galloped off down the road.
“You boys get those son’s of bitches!” Acuff yelled after them. “You see to it that them bastards swing, you hear?”
The Coyote Bandits rode hard after the hold-up in Red Holler. They rode just south of town, crossed the creek and headed west. Though it appeared that nobody from the town was trailing them, they kept on riding hard. When they made it to the Rio Grande, they waded upriver rather than go straight on across.
“Anybody trailin’ us will have to stop and search for where we come up on the other side.” Clay explained to Hank. “They’ll expect that we waded down-river. It’ll slow ’em up some.”
Later on, they happened upon a couple of Navaho Indians driving a small herd of cattle and a wagon of trade goods to Santa Fe. Clay hailed them down and spoke to one of them. Afterwards, the Indians continued on their way, driving the cattle and the wagon over the bandit’s trail.
The men rode on until the sun sank low on the western horizon and they decided to hold up and make camp just before sundown. They dared not build a fire and so they cold-camped, dining on cold beans and jerky. Afterwards, they smoked.
“You should’ve seen the look on that man’s face when I pointed the gun between his eyes!” Edgar mused. “I swear, he just about dumped a load right then an’ there!”
Both he and Clayton had a good laugh, but Hank didn’t find it to be at all that amusing.
Sensing that, Edgar prodded him.
“I don’t think our friend here has a sense of humor.” He said.
“I told you I didn’t want to get involved in breakin’ the law.” Hank replied. “What you guys did back there was just plain wrong.”
Edgar’s eyes seemed to flash with anger.
“Wrong? We needed horses an’ supplies! What the hell else was we supposed to do? Besides, what’s a goddamn Euro-pean know about right and wrong?”
Hank made no reply.
“Your thievin’ kind thinks nothin’ about brakin’ treaties, stealin’ land, killin’ our people, destroyin’ our entire way of life! Hell, there’s many whites don’t even consider an Indian human! You got a hell of a nerve sittin’ there an’ talkin’ about what’s right and wrong!”
From Edgar’s perspective, the man certainly had a point. Hank knew very well that he couldn’t counter the man’s argument. In fact, he actually sympathized with him on the subject.
“I can’t argue with you about that!” he replied. “What’s happening to your people is wrong, dead wrong! But then again, aren’t you guys forgettin’ one very important little fact?”
The two outlaws slowly turned and looked at him.
“You boys are half white yourselves!” he said.
“That’s right!” Edgar scowled. “We learned from them how to take what we want! The whites don’t follow their own laws, why should we?”
“Have you ever been on an Indian reservation?” Clay asked.
“Not lately.” Hank lied. “But I’ve read about them.”
“You can’t know what we’re talkin’ about unless you’ve been there and seen how it is.” Clay said. There was a distinct sadness in his voice. “People are dying of sickness and starvation. The old ones go first and then the women and children. Indian language, ways and beliefs are all outlawed! The reservation is a place only of death.”
“There was no excuse for it.” Hank replied. “I wish I had the power to somehow make things different but I can’t.”
He looked over at Clay.
“You two ought to be doin’ somethin’ to help your people! Wouldn’t that be better than what you’re doin’ now?”
“Help our people?” Edgar answered, his anger subsiding. “We do when we can! We provide blankets, clothes, food, things we know the people need but the whites now know and it becomes much more difficult for us!”
Clay looked over at Hank and smiled.
“You know, our mother used to tell us that some day, things would change. She said that a hundred years from now, people would be wiser. People would learn to live together and respect each other. There would be no more wars and all of the people would be free to live in their own way, in peace.”
Duggan pushed his hat back with a sigh. To say anything to them about the future would not only reveal his secret, but would shatter the little bit of hope that this wise woman had imparted to her sons. Besides, they surely wouldn’t believe him. They’d only think he was crazy!
“Maybe some day it’ll actually be like that.” He said softly.
The stillness and quiet of the desert enveloped the three men and a long silence followed. The sky darkened and stars began to appear as each man’s thoughts wandered off in separate directions.
Clay’s remark had started Hank thinking about the future. His focus returned to the problem of how he had gotten there in the first place, and then found himself wondering about aspects of time travel that he had never considered before.
First, there was the question of his disappearance. If the big Freightliner and its driver were missing, then surely it would be reported to the police and they would investigate it. But then again . . . maybe not.
From his present perspective, the future hadn’t happened yet. Therefore, the truck hadn’t been built yet and Hank Duggan hadn’t even been born yet! He and the truck wouldn’t disappear for well over a hundred years! And if the future didn’t exist yet, how could he even hope to get back to it?
He knew he must have come through some kind of time warp, some kind of doorway that led back in time. That would suggest a connection to the time he had come from! Reason dictates that if you can travel one way down a corridor, then surely you should be able to travel back the same way you came. If that were true, then there was hope!
He would have to find it somehow.
But then again, how does one go about locating a time portal? What if it moved, or closed? What if it didn’t exist at all? Would he ever get back to where he belonged or would he live out the rest of his life in the Old West?
There were too many unanswered questions and the more he thought about it, the more confusing it became. The only thing to be done was to cope with the situation at hand and that presented him with a whole set of more urgent problems!
He was in over his head with the Big Thunder brothers. Now he was a wanted man on the run from the law! Hell, he could wind up getting shot, or jailed, or hung! True, it was his own fault for not walking away from them in the first place. Clearly, he had better focus on the problems at hand . . .
Clayton spoke up and interrupted his thoughts.
“I’ve been thinking.” Said the outlaw. “We know that Ransom and his posse are trailin’ us and the Spencers for that stagecoach we hit out’a Durango.”
“The Spencers are worth a whole lot more than us.” Edgar replied. “Ransom will concentrate on them first! With any luck, they’ll both kill each other off.”
“That’s just wishful thinkin’ brother.” said Clay. “My guess is that the posse split up. Ransom would have sent a man or two on our trail while the rest of ‘em continued on after the Spencers. I’m figurin’ they could be a day behind us or maybe two and they’ll ride hard when they learn we hit Red Holler.”
“So, I say we’re takin’ a chance stoppin’ here like this. The moon is bright tonight! They might take advantage of that and try to close the distance.”
Hank spoke up. “Can they track at night?”
“Its pretty bright out here.” replied Clay. “I don’t think we ought to take that chance. I think we ought to ride hard and make for the canyon or else find a good spot and lay for ’em!”
“You mean ambush . . . like in kill them?”
Edgar yawned and stretched his arms. “You got any better ideas?”
Hank rose to his feet. “That does it!” he shouted. “I’m not taking part in any killing! That’s bullshit! I’ll ride out of here right now and you guys can do whatever the hell you want, but I’m not going to be involved in gunnin’ anybody down!”
Edgar jumped up! Anger flashed in his eyes and his hand slapped the gun in the holster at his hip.
“How many goddamn times do I have to tell you that you’re already involved? Are you thick headed or somethin’?”
Hank shook with fear but his anger overrode it. He’d known that a confrontation was inevitable and this was as good a time as any.
Boldly, he stood his ground!
“I’m not taking part in any killing and I mean it!”
The half-breed’s right arm flashed and the next thing Hank knew he was staring down the bore of Edgar’s Merwin-Hulbert.
“Don’t push your luck mister.” he said.
Duggan’s knees suddenly felt weak and sweat started to bead on his forehead. Still, he didn’t back down. Somewhere deep down inside, he found courage he didn’t even know was there.
“You gonna shoot down the man that saved your life?” He asked with a dry mouth. “Go ahead, pull that trigger if that’s what kind‘a man you really are!”
With that, Clay stood up and stepped between them.
“Ed, you need to cool down some,” he said to his brother. “Now put that thing away.”
Then he turned to Hank.
“The men that’s after us are bounty hunters. You know what that means? It means that the only thing they care about is collectin’ the reward money! They’d just as soon take us in dead as alive. In fact, they prefer dead! Just remember when the shootin’ starts, its kill or be killed, one or the other!”
Edgar put the gun in his holster and his brother continued on.
“Now, me an’ Ed here, we may be outlaws but we ain’t never killed nobody except in self defense. Still, if you continue to rile my brother like that, he just might make you the first!”
The outlaw clamped a hand to Hank’s shoulder in a gesture of reassurance and turned back to his brother. “Chances are that we lost ’em but I’d say we better ride and ride hard for the Canyon.”
Edgar shook his head and sighed.
“Well then let’s quit jawin’ about it and get to movin!”
After that, nobody spoke. Each man busied himself with gathering his belongings and saddling up his horse. It took only minutes and they were ready to ride. They mounted up and Clayton reined over beside Hank’s paint.
“We’re headin’ for our hideout in Coyote Canyon and you’re coming with us! After the trail cools off, then we go our separate ways!”
Ellie Masters drove her buckboard along the dusty road to Red Holler. She’d told Digger that she was going in for some cooking supplies but in truth, it was to see if there was any talk going around about the Coyote Bandits.
Actually, it was Hank Duggan she was concerned about.
She’d been thinking about him since he’d left. He was certainly a handsome looking man, seemingly intelligent, well mannered and courteous. Why was he running from bounty hunters in the company of the Big Thunder brothers? It was the same question the bounty hunters were wondering themselves. And if the half-breeds were as notorious as Pinder and Morgan claimed, why didn’t they try something when they had the chance? There was only one thing she felt sure of; this man Duggan was no outlaw.
In fact, he reminded her in some ways, of her late husband Ben.
Ellie Masters rode into the little town, pulled the buckboard up in front of the general store, set the brake and stepped down. At the other end of town a stage was parked in front of the office and piano music drifted out from the Stagecoach Saloon across the street.
Upon seeing her enter the store, Doobie Acuff hurried out from behind the counter.
“Hey there Mrs. Masters!” he greeted. “It’s always good to see you. How are you doin’ this fine day?”
She smiled at him. “I’m doin’ just fine Mr. Acuff.”
“Have you heard about the robbery? Everybody’s talkin’ about it!”
“There’s been a robbery?”
“There sure was!” replied the storekeeper excitedly, eager to tell the story again. “It was none other than the Coyote Bandits themselves! They came in here and robbed my store and the livery too. I don’t mind tellin’ you, I feared for my life!”
Hank Duggan involved in a robbery? She was somewhat disturbed by the news, but didn’t allow it to show. “You must tell me all about it, Mr. Acuff.” she said.
The storekeeper ushered her over to a brand new rocking chair and motioned her to sit down. She seated herself and looked at him expectantly.
“Well, there was two of ‘em that came walkin’ in here, one of the half-breeds and another man. The half-breed said that he wanted to buy a gun. The other man just kinda stood lookin’ around the place. I showed the half-breed what hog legs I had on hand in that case yonder.” He pointed towards the display case. “He picks out one an’ asks if I got shells for it! Well, right then I started gettin suspicious! He loaded it up an’ the next thing I knew, he had that gun pointin’ right in my face!”
“You mean, you gave a gun and shells to a man that you suspected was a robber Mr. Acuff?” Ellie asked innocently.
Suddenly feeling stupid at his blunder and embarrassed by her catching it, Acuff cleared his throat and went on. “Well, I wasn’t sure he was a robber Ma’am!”
“It’s quite alright Mr. Acuff.” Ellie replied. “Please go on.”
“Well, the half-breed ordered the other man to tie me up, but he acted like he didn’t want to.” Acuff said. “The half-breed got real mad, so the other one did like he was told!”
Inwardly, Ellie breathed a sigh of relief. “Sounds to me like the other man didn’t want to take part in the hold-up.”
“I don’t reckon he did either, Mrs. Masters, ‘cause while he was tyin’ me up he apologized!”
“He said to me, ‘I’m sorry about this Mister.’” replied Acuff. “Those were his very words, and then he just stood there while the half-breed commenced to takin’ what he wanted! Then the other half-breed showed up and they sent him outside to keep a look-out.”
“Did this other man ride off with them?”
“I was tied up and layin’ on the floor, Ma’am. I heard some shootin’ and hollerin’ and horses gallopin’ off! I reckon he must have! Can’t say what else he’d a done.”
It appeared to Ellie that her suspicions about Hank Duggan were true. From everything she had just learned from Doobie Acuff, Hank had been a rather reluctant participant in the hold-up.
“I don’t think he had much of a choice.” she said, mostly to herself.
Acuff gave her a puzzled look.
“Do you know that man Mrs. Masters?” he asked.
“Maybe so.” she replied thoughtfully, and then suddenly her expression changed to one of concern. “Last night two men rode by my ranch askin’ questions about ’em. They said they were bounty hunters.”
“Why, they came through here earlier t’day!” Acuff replied excitedly. “They said they were ridin’ for Mat Ransom! I told ‘em the whole story an’ they lit right out’a here after ’em!”
“That would put ’em about a day behind.”
“I reckon that’s about right.” The store keep replied. “But with Ransom’s boys after ’em, I’d say those Coyotes are as good as got!”
Ellie Masters had heard all she needed to know.
“Well Mr. Acuff, I’m so sorry to hear of your misfortune, but I’d best be on my way now.”
She rose up from the chair and started for the door.
“Don’t you need anything, Mrs. Masters?” Acuff called after her, but she made no reply as she exited the store.
Doobie Acuff looked after her and scratched his head in confusion.
“Well, I’ll be!” He said.
Ellie climbed up onto the buckboard, made a wide u-turn and headed straight back towards the Oasis ranch. Not until several minutes later did she remember the cooking supplies she’d used as an excuse to go into town. She shrugged her shoulders and continued on. There were other things on her mind!
She had expected the Coyote Bandits to hit the town for horses and supplies. She had expected that Pinder and Morgan would pick up their trail. What she didn’t expect was the concern she now felt for the safety of the stranger, Hank Duggan!
There was something about the man. It went farther than the pointed boots or the fit and cut of the clothing he wore. In some strange and inexplicable way, he was different than any man she had ever known before.
There was something in his voice, in his mannerisms, in his eyes. Whatever it was, she felt herself strangely drawn to him and the more she thought about him, the more the attraction grew. He was no outlaw, no gunfighter, of that she was certain! Somehow she knew that there was much more to this man than what meets the eye and in her heart, she longed to see him again.