Fresh out of jail, John Magadan sets out for the oasis of Coyote Wells. When he finds the spring dried up, he knows he will likely die. He trudges on, and hears a voice calling from the sands—a gutshot man pleading for water that John does not have to give. The man presses silver into John’s hand, begging him to take it to Yuma, to tell his sweetheart how he died. John agrees, even though he sees no chance of making it there alive.
Soon after he rides on, John’s horse gives out, sending him crashing to the ground unconscious. When he comes to, he’s in an unfamiliar place, being interrogated by men who suspect him of killing the man in the desert. Killers, lawmen, and Yaqui Indians all want John Magadan’s hide. He survived the desert, but the trip to Yuma will be deadly.
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Incident at Coyote Wells
By Paul Lederer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2007 Logan Winters
All rights reserved.
My buckskin horse stood trembling beneath the torrid Arizona sky. His legs were unsteady, his flanks streaked with salt flecks. His head hung miserably as he pawed weakly at the sun-dried earth where water should have been. There were only dish-sized, curling plates of colorless mud there, baked into a sort of primitive mosaic. Brown cattails clustered around the dry waterhole, their heavy heads hanging like stunned mourners.
A white sky hung over the lifeless white land as I dragged myself up the side of a sand dune to search the terrain beyond, thinking that maybe there was some water to be had, that Coyote Wells still held some promise of life.
Peering into the distances from the top of the dune I saw nothing but more barren, formless land where nothing lived and nothing moved. I made my way to the scant shade of a group of thorny mesquite bushes and sagged down to the earth. Bees searched the mesquite flowers and a cluster of gnats drifted annoyingly around my head. I didn't bother to wave them away even when they tormented my ears and tried to swarm around my nostrils. I sat cross-legged, staring across the long sterile distances, my lips blistered, my tongue swollen with thirst.
Well, then, that was that – I was never going to make California now. I had come down from the piney hills around Flagstaff on to the shimmering desert where the devil winds blew and ghostly blue mirages danced, deceitfully promising coolness. A lot of men had died out on this desert and it looked like I was going to meet some of them soon. The old-timers I had asked had assured me that there was water at Coyote Wells if I could make it that far, always was. I could see that there had been – once. And I could see the bones of a desert sheep lying at the edge of the dry pool. It, too, had believed that the dry lake could sustain life.
I rolled on to my back, the lacework of shade from the narrow mesquite bushes criss-crossing my body. I threw my forearm over my eyes and tried to rest for just a little while. I could make it, I convinced myself. Even if the buckskin could not go on, I could make it. After dark, maybe. If I did not lose my way in the vastness.
I was dry, not a drop of perspiration to cool me. The gusting, sand-laden, arid wind dried and whipped away any moisture before it had time to form. It parched my mouth. Tightened my throat, dried my flesh. I should never have left Flagstaff, never. But then there had been no choice with that murder charge hanging over my head....
It was an hour or so on that the Indians came.
I must have heard them talking. Something caused my swollen eyelids to flicker open, to reach for my sun-heated rifle and roll over on to my belly. Instinct. I even imagined for a moment that Driscoll had somehow raised a posse to follow me on to this godforsaken desert.
There were two Indians only, that I could see. Yaquis. Short, dark men of the desert. One of them carried an old Army-issue .45-70 Springfield rifle. The other, apparently a younger warrior, had only a bow and a quiver of arrows.
It was obvious that they were heading directly toward me, toward Coyote Wells, hoping for relief themselves. Suddenly they exchanged a few excited words. The younger Indian pointed eagerly. They had spotted my buckskin horse. I gritted my teeth and worked my body lower into the sand at the rise of the dune. They must have been thinking that this was their lucky day. I could have told them that it wasn't.
I removed my hat and watched as they approached the dry pond. I couldn't hear, and would not have understood their words, but I could sense their joy fading to dismay. There was no water. The horse was weak, tottering, almost useless. They nevertheless went to the buckskin, hoping I assumed, to try to get a few miles out of him to save their burning feet.
I fired one shot, not trying to kill. Sand kicked up at their feet and the older man who had taken the buckskin's reins dropped them, peering up at me through the brilliant glare of the white-hot day. He didn't like what he saw.
His .45-70 fired one shot at a time, needing to be reloaded after each. I made sure he saw the muzzle of my needle gun, a sixteen-shot Winchester repeater. He wanted no part of it, and besides I had the high ground. There was no discussion between the two Yaquis, no challenge. They simply turned and trudged out again on to the open desert in pursuit of water. Perhaps they knew of hidden springs no white man had ever discovered. I found myself wishing them luck.
Their appearance, however, nudged me into motion, reminding me that in the desert water is life and all creatures – man or beast will seek it out. Coyote Wells was a well-known source, although it was now dry. I hadn't known that; the Yaquis hadn't even known that it was dry. Therefore it was a magnet for all and sundry wandering the bleak wilderness. Even – although I still considered the possibility remote – for Sheriff Tom Driscoll. I raised myself to my feet and staggered down the sandy slope to collect the buckskin's reins.
I didn't mount the struggling beast, but led him along, hoping somehow to find water that would yet allow the suffering horse to recover from the ill-use I had given it. I watched over my shoulder as I trudged though the heavy white sand, knowing that Indians are notional and the Yaquis might yet decide to come back. Too, they might have had friends around that I had not seen. I wanted to put as much distance between myself and Coyote Wells as possible.
I glanced at the white sun, falling in its slow arc toward the eastern horizon. Two hours, I judged and the land would cool. And by midnight with no clouds to contain the heat of the day, the temperature would drop with astonishing speed to near-freezing, the night bringing no relief, but only a different sort of torment.
I saw the discarded blanket beside the trail before I had noticed the hoofprints. Three sets of them. There was a feeble keening in the air, nearly the sound of wind, but there was no breeze stirring across the white desert at that moment. Frowning, I paused, unsheathed my Winchester and peered into the harsh sunlight.
I saw – thought I saw – a human hand lift from the silver-hot sand and backed away instinctively. The sound rose again, like something calling from its grave, and I moved toward it with cautious apprehension. Then I heard the strangled, dry words clear enough to identify them.
'Help me. For God's sake!'
I knew he was a living man because he had called me. Had I not, I could have mistaken the huddled, drift-sand covered figure lying in a depression of the sun-bright dune as a dead animal or a sorry clump of brush.
He called me again, eagerly. I could go no faster than I was already traveling. I waded across the sand dune, dropping the reins to the fatigued buckskin along my way and went to my knees beside this sorry man. The sun glared down, hot on my back. My body shaded his eyes, pale, red, encrusted.
'Thank God!' he said in a whisper. 'Water, please! For God's sake.'
I could only shake my head and he understood. His throat was too dry for him to swallow as he tried to form a few words with badly split lips.
'They gunned me down. I thought I could make Coyote Wells, find water ... but they jumped me. We fought for a minute, then they just gunned me down like a dog.'
I couldn't answer. What was there to say, anyway?
'What's your name, friend?' he asked out of the parched canyon of his throat.
'Magadan, you've got to tell her what happened. She'll be waiting for me in Yuma ... do that one thing for me.'
'Sure,' I promised. I was aware that I was lying to a dead man, but maybe it would ease his passing. Even had I wanted to go to Yuma, I would never be able to make it, the state I was in. I wasn't much more alive than this lost soul.
'I don't know who they were.' He sat up abruptly, astonishing me, grabbing the collar of my shirt with surprising strength. 'It had to have been Corson, though.' He fell back against the sand. After a few minutes of convulsed, ragged breathing, he uncupped his right hand and showed me what it held. An embossed German-silver button from a fancy vest or jacket.
'Take this, Magadan. I tore it off him during the fight. It'll be evidence. She'll know what to do.'
His breathing grew more sporadic, his eyes remained closed. I took the silver button and tucked it into the pocket of my jeans. Why, I don't know. I had no intention of going to Yuma. I was on the run myself, and making heavy going of it.
He breathed out his last words painfully. 'Just tell Beth that Ray did his best for her.'
And then he died.
I sat there, hunkered on my heels for a long time. I eased my conscience about lying to the dead man by running through what he had told me and realizing that even were I willing and able, he had designed an impossible task. Go to Yuma, find a woman named Beth, tell her that someone named Ray was dead and a man named Corson was responsible. And then? Then nothing.
I had done all I could do. Listened to him, eased his mind. I searched his clothes, found a black leather wallet which I pocketed and little else. No matter – I would be lucky to make it to sundown myself. I couldn't have cared about any valuables he might be carrying. Nothing was of more value just then than water, and it couldn't be purchased at any price.
I'm ashamed to say I didn't take the time to bury the man. I didn't have the strength, which also embarrassed me. John Magadan – me – always worked his way with the strength of his two hands and broad shoulders, be it droving, lumberjacking, mining or harvesting. True, those three months in the Flagstaff jail had leaned me down some, but I had still had enough strength to overpower deputy Larson and break out when he let his guard down. Now I was nothing but a scarecrow, my body deprived of water and nourishment, wandering desperately toward an uncertain goal in California.
The blast furnace winds began again and sand started drifting across us – me and the gaunted, trail-beaten buckskin horse. It stung my eyes, obscured vision. I wondered what aspect we presented. A gaunt man leading a gaunt horse stumbling across an endless white desert.
With the dusk the wind subsided. I sagged to the ground, holding the shuddering buckskin's reins. The western skies had begun to darken. A long crimson pennant was streaked against the purpling sky and the waves of dunes began to turn blue and cast confused shadows against one another.
I doubted that I could go on.
I must have slept, because when I next opened my eyes a white half-moon was silvering the sands and the buckskin was nudging me, still expecting some human help for its misery. I had to grip the horse's bridle to boost myself to my feet again.
I stood surveying the moonscape of the desert. Nothing moved, there was no sound, no habitation, no animals abroad. Only endless night, endless sand.
I had to move with the coolness of night. Reluctantly I offered a silent apology to the buckskin horse and swung into the saddle. We continued on our way southward, trudging through the misery of the night. The horse's head hung. I clung to the pommel, fearful of falling from the weary saddle. The moon sailed higher, mocking our small attempts.
Sometime after midnight I sensed that something had changed. I could hear the buckskin's hoofs clicking against solid earth, not whooshing through deep sand. Heavily I lifted my head and looked around me. I saw a thicket of nopal, a shaggy Joshua tree and here and there saguaro cactus rising tall and somehow menacing from the earth, their uplifted arms casting long shadows.
The land had begun to rise and break into arroyos and rocky hills. Distantly I saw a low range of sawtooth mountains. It was no relief. We were no nearer to fording water than we had been on the white desert.
In the far distance I saw a brief sparkle of light, no brighter than a firefly. I rubbed my eyes with an uncertain hand. The light was gone when I looked again. Had I actually seen a light or glimpsed a low desert star through a notch in the hills? I could not be certain, but it was a glimmer of hope and continuing as we were could only lead to death when the morning sun returned with its searing haunt.
I turned the buckskin's head toward the tiny beacon of promise.
Discovering the head of a dry wash which angled down in the direction of the light, I gave the buckskin his head, hoping he had the strength to pick his way across the broken ground. A mountain-bred pony, he was very good at this under normal circumstances. Now I could feel him shuddering beneath me, not frightened of the trail, but simply exhausted. I forced him to continue into the depths of the canyon where deep shadows spread themselves across our path. The buckskin slipped once, twice on the shale underfoot, but we continued on. Exiting the canyon mouth the buckskin lifted his head suddenly, and by moonlight I saw his ears prick. Could it be that he smelled water, heard others of his kind in the distance?
I did not hold him back, but did not hurry him either as we crossed a flat where salt grass and ocotillo grew. He seemed sure of his destination now. I actually found myself having to slow the big animal.
Then I saw the light again. A solitary beacon. I did not know who I might meet, what sort of welcome awaited me. It no longer mattered. If I could only have a few sips of water before I died.
We emerged from the canyon shadows to find a level patch of ground surrounding a pole-and-adobe structure about the size of an outbuilding standing alone on that treeless, lifeless soil. There was a light flickering dimly through a slit window and I guided the buckskin toward it. His head was still lifted eagerly, but as we neared the shanty his front knees buckled and he rolled, throwing me to the ground.
My head struck rock and the world began to spin crazily, the night stars spiraling away madly, the mocking moon staring down at me from the long, lonely desert sky before all went dark and silent and life seem to shatter into meaningless fragments with no consciousness left to hold it together.
When I came to, nothing fit right. I was on my back somewhere, but sheltered. A fiercely blinding ray of new sunlight streamed through a slot in the shelter and stung my eyes with its fury as if I were an ancient enemy deserving to be blinded. My head ached savagely, and I could not remember why that should be so.
Stranger still was the spectre I saw mumbling and pacing the floor, cutting off the light and then allowing it to carve its saberlike way through the rough walls. Remembering a little of what had happened, I tried to sit up. Failing that I fell back again, fists clenched. I thought first of the buckskin horse.
'Is my horse dead?' I asked in a voice that was not mine and was scarcely human. The spectre stopped its pacing.
It spoke. 'No. He'll outlive you. If you don't have some powerful explanations. We don't hang men for murder out here. We just shoot them.'
Had my past caught up with me then? How could anyone in this desolate territory know who I was? I understood none of it. My shadowy host crossed the narrow room and jerked my head up, spilling some of the contents of his canteen into my mouth. Roughly he let my head again drop on to the bunk where I had been placed and resumed his pacing.
'I'm not a murderer,' I managed to say through my sun-blistered lips.
'You see in Flagstaff ...'
'Damn Flagstaff! Tell me what happened to Ray Hardin and why you were carrying his wallet!'CHAPTER 2
I rubbed my encrusted eyes and tried to sit up again. I made it halfway and, leaning on my elbows, I watched as the spectre emerged from the heavy shadows, cut across that beam of harsh daylight and approached me again. Now I saw a narrow-built man of an age somewhere between fifty and a hundred wearing twill trousers held up by a pair of red suspenders looped over his scrawny shoulders. He had a thinning patch of silver hair on his knobby head and a squint in one eye. He also had a rifle in his hands – my rifle. He was not smiling.
'Are you going to tell me, or aren't you?' he asked in a scratchy voice.
'I'll tell you. How about another drink of water.'
He shook his head from side to side slowly, definitely. 'Tell me your story first. I might just be wasting water.' He had raised the muzzle of the Winchester so that I could look into its dark bore.
I told him slowly, carefully what had happened back at Coyote Wells. He listened patiently but dubiously.
'I didn't want to leave his wallet and papers out there,' I told him. 'What would be the point in giving them up to the desert sands?'
'Did you bury Ray proper?' the old man demanded.
Excerpted from Incident at Coyote Wells by Paul Lederer. Copyright © 2007 Logan Winters. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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