Coyote Trail

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Chapter 8: Shoot-out in Coyote Canyon

They had ridden all through the night. The three men sat their horses and gazed at the mouth of the canyon that stretched before them. It was mid-morning and they were saddle-sore, tired and hungry.

“Welcome to Coyote Canyon.” Clayton Big Thunder said as he swung down from his saddle. “Hank, you an’ me are gonna walk in. Ed will take the horses and meet up with us later on.”

Without asking any questions, Hank swung down and handed the reigns over to Edgar. The somber outlaw turned and led the horses off to the south.

“This is a good place to hide!” Clay gestured proudly at the looming red walls before them. “It’s a box canyon. There is only one way in.”

Hank gave him a puzzled look.

“If there’s only one way in, then there’s only one way out.” He responded. “You could be trapped in there.”

“You forget the medicine of the Trickster!” Clay replied with a grin. “There’s a little cave that connects to Crow Canyon on the other side! That’s where Ed’s gone with the horses. If we should need to escape, there’s a back door!”

The two men started off on their way into the mouth of the canyon and soon, the steep, jagged walls were on either side of them. They followed what appeared to be a game trail or an old Indian path through the sparse grass, prickly pears and squat cedar. It continued on along a meandering dry wash and then passed through thickets of Mesquite and Juniper. This soon gave way to tall pines that sheltered farther back in the canyon.

They continued onward, until at last they came to where the canyon walls came together and closed in around them, like a great stone horseshoe.

“This way.” Clay said.

Walking around a large boulder that had dislodged from above and fallen ages ago, they climbed up a small embankment of shale to where some tree limbs had been piled. Clay began to thrust them aside and soon revealed the small entranceway to a cave.

“This is our little hide away.” He said. “Inside, there’s all the comforts of home. That is, if your home is a hole in the ground!”

The half-breed burst out laughing and continued to laugh as he disappeared inside the narrow entrance. Hank shook his head and followed.

The entrance opened up into a fairly spacious room. A shaft of sunlight extended down from a small opening high overhead. The floor was soft, powdery sand and the temperature was cool and quite comfortable. There was a fire pit; firewood and cooking supplies along one wall and along the other were piled blankets, buckets, oil lamps, some rifles and boxes of ammunition.

“If you go back farther, it gets smaller and forks off in two directions.” Said the outlaw. “To the right, there’s a small pool of cool spring water.”

“Like you said . . . all the comforts of home.” Hank replied. “I’ll go get us some o’ that water for coffee.”

He picked up two of the buckets and set off to find the spring. By the time he returned, Clay had a small fire going. Grabbing a blanket, Hank sat himself down on the soft floor. He stuffed the blanket behind his head and lay there watching as Clay put a pot of coffee to brew and started cooking up some beans and bacon.

The half-breed didn’t speak but softly sang as he busied himself at the fire. After a while, the rhythmic, gentle chanting had Hank nodding off to sleep but then Edgar showed up from seemingly out of nowhere carrying the saddlebags and a lighted oil lamp!

“Smells good.” he said as he dropped the bags on the ground. “I’m getting’ hungry.”

The food was ready and so they ate.

There was very little conversation as the hungry men focused their attention to what was in their tin plates. Afterwards, their bellies content, they lounged and smoked Hank’s last cigarettes.

Hours later, when the shaft of sunlight was gone, only an oil lamp illuminated the room. Hank could make out stars through the small opening in the ceiling. He lay awake upon a blanket on the powdery sand floor while Clayton slept, rolled up in his blanket along the opposite wall. Out by the boulder in front of the cave entrance, Edgar stood the first watch.

Though his body was exhausted, Duggan found he was unable to fall asleep. His thoughts were on Ellie Masters. He thought about parting company with the Big Thunder brothers and making his way back to the ranch. Maybe she could use some help, an extra hand around the place? That would be nice, he thought. It would give him some time to focus on his own problem without being on the run.

It would also give him a chance to get to know Ellie better.

He hadn’t thought about her since the holdup in Red Holler but now that he lay there in the quiet of the cave, he couldn’t get her off his mind. There was something about her, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on, but something that he’d never sensed in any woman he’d ever met before. In his mind he could picture her, just as clearly as if she were standing there right in front of him.

Well, that’s just what he’d do, he decided.

As soon as he could ride out of there, he’d head back to Ellie’s place and find out what that something about her was!

Dawn found Hank Duggan crouched next to the boulder outside of the cave entrance. Clay had awakened him a few hours before, handed him a loaded rifle and said; “It’s your turn. Stay alert.”

Duggan yawned and rubbed his tired eyes and looked at the old Henry rifle leaning against the rock in front of him. He pulled his blanket tighter around himself against the brisk early morning chill. The birds chattered and called to each other in their daybreak activities.

Those two ought to be wakin’ up soon, he thought as he rubbed his hands together to warm them. His relationship with the Big Thunder brothers had seemed to take a turn recently. Edgar’s behavior had seemed to have changed since their last confrontation. He was quieter now, less talkative. At the same time, Clay had become more friendly and out-going.

Hank reasoned that it was because he had stood up to Edgar and challenged him, letting him know that there was a limit to how far he could be pushed. Like any bully, once challenged, they usually backed off and left you alone.

Oh well, he thought, after a few days of rest in this canyon, the trail would be cooled off and then he could be on his way. The Coyote Bandits could ride off into the sunset and be a nuisance somewhere else!

Duggan yawned again, stretching himself to get his blood flowing. It was then that he noticed the silence! The birds had quit their chatter; utter quiet and a sense of stillness filled the air.

Hank looked up and his eyes went wide!

A huge, gray coyote stood atop the boulder looking down at him! The animal stood with tail erect, its ears perked up and alert. Its head darted nervously left and right and it whined and cried softly in warning. Could it possibly be the same one he’d seen before?

Surely the creature was tryin’ to tell him something! He grabbed the Henry and got to his feet. Suddenly, the animal looked back over its shoulder and froze! So did Hank!

An instant later, it sprang away.

Duggan heard a faint noise behind him and turned to see Edgar emerge from the cave. He stood before the entrance, yawned and stretched himself.

“Hey Ed.” said Hank. “I just saw that coyote again!”

Edgar grunted something unintelligible, took one step forward and suddenly a shot rang out! The sound boomed like a cannon and echoed through the morning stillness! The bullet cut right through Edgar’s left arm and ricocheted off the rock wall behind him.

Startled and in pain, the half-breed dove to the ground!

Duggan froze as another shot split the air, the bullet taking the hat right off the top of his head!

“Get down, you damned fool!” Edgar shouted.

Coming to his senses, Hank threw himself to the ground. Suddenly, Clay appeared in the mouth of the cave and tossed a rifle to his brother.

“You best throw down your weapons and come out’a there!” called the voice of Howard Pinder!

The two brothers answered him with gunfire.

“You can come on in here and get us!” Edgar yelled in return.

The bounty hunters sent a volley of rifle-fire that ricocheted off the rock walls and struck the boulder much too close to Hank and Edgar! Dust and bits of rock went flying everywhere!

“Over there!” Clay shouted, pointing up and to the left. “See him?”

“I got him.” Edgar replied.

The two half-breeds returned fire.

Another shot rang out and Hank saw a puff of smoke rise from behind some rocks on a ledge off to his right. His hands trembled as he tried to steady his rifle. Could he actually pull the trigger?

Suddenly a man popped up, a man with red hair and a beard, Hank noted. The man quickly took aim at him and fired! Hank ducked just as the bullet pinged off the boulder, inches from his head!

These men meant business! This was no game. It was just like Clayton had told him it would be; ‘when the shootin’ starts, its kill or be killed! One or the other!’

What Hank had feared would happen was happening.

Here he was, involved in a gunfight; just like in a thousand westerns he’d seen on TV . . . only this time it was real! Regardless of all his previous reasoning, he had to do something and do it now! People were shooting at him! The moment of decision was at hand!

He raised up the Henry and took aim.

Again the man popped up and pointed his rifle. Duggan aimed low and his finger pulled the trigger! The recoil bit into his shoulder as the bullet struck the rock right in front of the man’s face! Dust and rock flew up into the man’s eyes and he fell back, dropping his rifle!

“Come on!” Clay was shouting from just inside the cave entrance; “Get back in here!”

Hank turned and dove for the safety of the cave. Edgar let off another shot and then followed. The shooting eased up and ceased as the three men lay in the shelter of the cave, trying to catch their breath, their hearts beating fast.

“Those dirty sons of bitches!” Edgar cursed in pain. “I thought we’d lost ’em for sure!”

“You’re hit!” observed Clay. “Let me see.”

In one swift motion, he tore open Edgar’s shirtsleeve and examined the wound. “The bullet went clean through.” He said. “You’re lucky.”

While Clay proceeded to tend to his brother’s wound, Edgar turned to Hank. “We’re gonna have to go out the back door.” he said. “You two gather up what we need and get the horses ready. I’ll cover this end.”

Clay removed his neckerchief and wrapped it around his brother’s arm to stop the bleeding and then he and Hank hurriedly grabbed up supplies and saddlebags and headed back into the cave. Clay led the way with Hank following close behind and soon they were crawling through a small exit that opened out into Crow Canyon. The horses were right there waiting and they quickly saddled them up.

A moment later, Edgar appeared in the small opening. He passed the rifles through to Clay and then crawled out of the hole.

Clay tossed the old Henry to Hank. “Let’s move!” he shouted.

There was no argument as far as Hank Duggan was concerned. He was all too happy to get the hell out of there!

The Coyote Bandits mounted up and galloped off.

Everything was quiet and had been so for quite some time. Pinder had shouted several times for the outlaws to come out and give themselves up, but there had been no response and no gun fire from the outlaws. It was almost noon and the sun shined down hot on his head.

Howard Pinder was tired of waiting.

“Morgan!” he shouted.

“I hear ya.” echoed Red’s voice from across the canyon.

Howard cocked the lever of his Winchester and stood up.

“I’m goin’ in!”

Crouching low and keeping under cover as best he could, Pinder made his way down towards the boulder. His eyes caught a movement off to his left . . .

It was Morgan.

“I’m right here with ya.” Red whispered.

Slowly, cautiously, the two men inched their way up to the huge rock. There, they split up and crept around it. Finally, they met up with each other in front of the mouth of the cave.

Pinder noticed Morgan’s face was blooded from numerous small cuts around his nose and eyes. “Looks like you need to practice keepin’ your fool head down.” He joked. “Are you alright?”

“Just a little uglier and a whole lot meaner!” Morgan replied and motioned towards the cave entrance. “Those bastards gotta be in there layin’ for us!”

“There’s only one way to find out.” said Pinder; “We’re gonna have to go in there and see!”

The two men got down and crawled on their bellies through the entrance, hugging the walls as they went. Once their eyes adjusted to the darkness, they could see the scattered supplies but there was no sign of the Coyote Bandits. They slowly got to their feet and entered the room, their nerves tense and their guns at the ready.

“I’d say there’s another way out of here.” Red growled.

“That’s for sure.” Pinder replied. “There’s got to be a way out farther back! I reckon they’ve been gone a while now.”

“Let’s get after ‘em!” exclaimed Red; “If we hurry up an’ ride hard, we can circle around and pick up their trail! Hell, in a few hours we could get those bastards!”

Pinder walked over and stared down at the fire pit. The coals were still hot and maybe the coffee was too. It would be a shame to let coffee go to waste.

“I don’t think so.” He said; “We need to get back to Ransom. He’ll be needin’ us for sure. ”

“Damn you Pinder!” Red protested; “You’re gonna let ’em get away!”

Pinder bent down and poured some of the coffee into a tin cup.

“I’m just followin’ orders.” he replied calmly. “Ransom’s orders!”

“If Ransom knew we were so close, he’d want us to keep after ’em!” Morgan argued. “If it were Matthew, he wouldn’t give up so easy!”

Pinder didn’t pay him any mind as he took a sip from the cup.

“Strong coffee.” he said.

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