Minx Otero yanked the tourniquet taut on her thigh. She pulled her black boots on, brushed the sand from her dark dress, and primped the long black hair she'd tied into a bun below her brown hat. Then she was off into the desert again. The rattler's bite, a shallow puncture quickly drained, wasn't affecting her movements. She was lucky. It had been three days since she'd stepped off the train, and she figured she was pretty close to the town of Penumbra, New Mexico where her business was to be done. It was getting close to sundown, and she'd prefer to spend the night indoors.
Her brown suitcase, heavy with the effects she was to deliver to the lost scion, carved its own wheeled path behind her in the sand. The company that sent her had requisitioned a stage coach, but it had been waylaid some time before. Not wanting to miss her opportunity, she hitched a ride with a man transporting hay to a fort some distance past their destination.
All was fine and dandy until the lead horse took ill and collapsed on the road, damaging the wagon in the process. Not wanting to delay any further, Otero grabbed her luggage and started on her way, anticipating she'd be in the town by night fall. What she didn't anticipate was the snake looming in the scrub brush she stopped to rest in.
She heard the ominous tail sprout a warning then felt the strike against her leg. She stumbled away without even getting a good look at it. After she was a safe distance down the road, she stopped again to tend the wound. And now, through the drifting dust, she could see the outskirts of the small town situated around the stage coach stop. To its far right along the plain was a well and a small river corking through the valley between distant mountains ahead.
Beyond the stage stop and its small corral of horses were a hotel, tavern and general store. Across the thoroughfare from them was a market and livery with stock for sale.
Minx walked inside the hotel.
There was a staircase straight ahead of her that wound up to the rooms. To her left, was a counter, where a woman in a white blouse sat in front of mailboxes. Beside it, was a corridor that connected the hotel to the tavern next door.
The woman behind the counter was old, with slicked back curly-hair, a pair of spectacles had slid down her nose. She spoke with a german accent.
"How may I assist you?"
"I'll be needing a room here," Minx said with a wink. "Minx Otero's what they call me."
"Agnes Tresco." The porter looked around for her companion.
"How modern. The room is above. Number 3." The porter motioned to the landing and pushed a key forward. "And food is that way," Agnes said, hooking a thumb left of her desk.
Minx dropped her luggage off in her room, which had a trunk instead of an armoire below a window that overlooked the stretch of desert that led to the river. Her dusty bed had red sheets with holes in them. Beside it, there was a table below a curling golden sconce in the wall.
When Minx took her boots off to check the wound, something scraped across the floor in the room beside her. She saw where there was a breach in the wall along the floorboards, and put her head to the ground to look through it.
Dirty black boots stomped across the ground, kicking up dust that travelled through the hole. Minx stifled a cough. Past the boots, Minx saw an Apache man tied up in a chair beside a table much resembling her own. He had on a red head scarf, a brown vest over a white shirt, and brown leggings tucked into his riding boots. His head was slunk down, but he was breathing. When the man was far enough away from the hole, she got a good look at him too.
He looked like a bounty hunter. Built thick, he wore a filthy white shirt over tan pants. He had a handlebar mustache, and matching gray hair above eyes narrowed in disgust at whatever nature threw his way.
"They comin' for you, Apache?"
He didn't answer. The bounty hunter kicked his chair leg. The Apache stirred.
"Where they fixin' to catch up? Figured we'd a got into more trouble on the road here. But for all I know they got agents spirited away in them mountains. I'd come along in the night, is what I'd do."
"They're more interested in keeping the women and children away from the fort," the Apache said.
"Meaning I could go easier on you, knowing there's less chance of you getting sprung?"
"That and the souvenir you gave me in my gut. Think you're okay, chief."
"Hardly count that as a mosquito bite, and you're still flappin' your gums on the subject."
"How 'bout some water?"
"Think you're on the reservation, slick?"
"Dead and alive pay the same?"
The bounty hunter grabbed a basin, leaned the Apache's head back and poured water into his mouth.
"That's just on account of my Christian nature. The pay cut might even out if I didn't have to hear your yappin' any longer."
"Praise be to Jesus," said the Apache.
Minx stood up and walked out of the room.
As she was leaving, the door beyond the bounty hunter's opened, and she saw a man in a neat black suit appear. He had a fine gray mustache, and thoughtfully eyed a newspaper in his right hand.
"Good day, madam."
"Good day," said Minx.
"Are you off to the dining facilities?"
"Then our paths twine together," he said.
They walked down the stairs and into the tavern area past an indifferent Agnes.
The tavern had polished dark wood floors and matching tables in front of the bottle-heavy bar area to the right. Through the back window, the sun was setting over distant mountains. The barkeep had light brown hair and was clean-shaven. He wore a dirty striped shirt over black pants.
"Good day sir, I'm Carver Duluth. This is . . . "
"Good afternoon. My name is Edwin. Edwin Orentius. You're both recent arrivals."
"I can say that for myself."
"And I for myself," said Minx.
"There you have it. Recent arrivals, both," said Duluth.
"I'd recommend the beef stew. With some whiskey to help it clear your gut."
"I'll take that recommendation."
"Minus the whiskey," said Minx.
They sat at a table nearby, and Minx thought to begin her inquiry of the missing man.
"What's your business in town, Mr. Duluth?"
"I'm working on behalf of the stage company, inspecting the stops along this route."
"How are they faring in your assessment?"
"Given the recent troubles with the Apaches, quite well," he said. "And yourself?"
"I work for an agency back east, they want me to locate a missing man on behalf of his parents. Gerald Vy. Has such a man introduced himself to either of you?"
Duluth shook his head then looked at Edwin.
"The name does not affect me as such. How would you describe him?" asked Edwin.
"Dark hair, just beyond twenty. Blue eyes. Often clean-shaven. Prefers his suits neat and shoes polished. His accent would call to mind New York society."
Minx caught something suspicious pass behind Edwin's eyes.
"I don't believe so."
Edwin brought over their stew with a smile.
"Let me know how it strikes you," he said.
Minx returned the smile.
At that point, the bounty hunter came down the stairs with the Apache. They took a table in the center of the room facing the bar.
"Whiskey and stew?" asked Edwin eagerly.
"Sounds like that's it," said the bounty hunter. "Unless this one feels like feeding me another helping of his complaints. Thick enough to eat or fill a book. Where are you all from?"
"New York," said Mr. Duluth.
"Myself as well," said Minx.
"Guess he must be a sight. Y'all ain't got any Indians back East, do you? Musta drove 'em all this way. Thanks for that," said the bounty hunter. "Pardon me, it was not my intention to offend any of your civilized sensibilities. My name is Plethory Waskins. This Apache here is called Fuerte. Don't let us ruin your meal none."
"Mr. Waskins," Duluth said. "We were just discussing a man named Gerald Vy. Have you seen him in recent weeks?"
"In recent weeks, all I seen is this fella and his folks, scurrying through them mountains on their little burros."
Edwin gave the two men their stew and whiskey and walked back over to the bar.
"I forgot to mention," said Minx. "Mr. Vy had a harmonica he was fond of playing. That might have distinguished him from some of your other customers."
Edwin shook his head.
Waskins kept eyeing the windows nervously, and after viciously dispatching of his meal and whiskey, finally dragged the Apache back up the stairs. Following a brief discussion with Minx regarding a shared acquaintance in the garment industry, Duluth left shortly after. Minx stayed alone with the barkeep, but he remained tightlipped, his doleful eyes seemed to search the ground for answers they never encountered. When the sun finally sank into the mountains beyond the window, Minx walked back over to Agnes, who gave the same reply regarding Vy, though her flat delivery hinted at nothing nefarious.
Minx retired to her room and kept an ear open, but the night marched forth without incident. When it was full dark, she snuck out of her room. Agnes had retired upstairs at some point, and the door to the tavern was closed. Minx produced a lock pick, fiddled with the door and forced it. She walked behind the bar and began rummaging about, but found nothing of interest, save for a few salacious letters between Edwin and a young woman in Missouri.
When she was about to head back upstairs, she saw distant torches through the window. Men on horseback with guns and fire.
Minx ran into the hotel, closed the tavern door, then yelled:
She heard the window smash out in Plethory's room, and a repeating rifle began firing from above. Indians whooped past the threshold of the hotel, and returned fire.
Edwin ran downstairs with a rifle and fumbled with his keys to open the door. On seeing it was unlocked, he gave Minx a suspicious look, then ran into the bar. Two Apaches with rifles were on horseback on the other side of the glass, and as soon as he entered, they both shot him in the torso and he fell down.
Minx dropped to the floorboards and kicked the door closed. It halfway splintered with another rattle of gunfire, swinging back open on rusted hinges, and she kicked the remains of it closed again. Then she ran upstairs and stumbled into the open room she saw Edwin enter from, collapsing onto the floor as shots peppered the window and wall around her. The gunfire continued from all sides, rifles and pistols blaring as other hotel occupants joined in the fray.
She got to her knees and rummaged through Edwin's desk, quickly finding the object of her desire, the harmonica engraved 'GV,' with a bloodstain near the lip piece. Minx shoved the harmonica inside her brassiere, then ran back to her room, gunfire from the hotel doorway piercing the wood just beyond her as she dove beside the bed. She pulled a revolver from within her luggage, then aimed it at the door, but there were no movements on the landing.
She looked out the window, and seeing nothing there, opened it and dropped her suitcase the ten feet down. She lowered herself out the side, and grazed her boots against the wall to soften her fall.
An Apache appeared on horseback to her left, aiming his rifle at Plethory's window. He turned to Minx with a look of surprise, and as he angled his barrel towards her, she shot him in the head. He dropped off the horse, and shuddered to a stop on the ground. Minx crawled over to the horse, grabbed the stirrup and lifted herself onto him. As she wheeled him around, the stock of a rifle struck her in the face. She fell to the earth and lost consciousness.
Minx woke with her arms and legs bound together across the backside of a horse, watching the ground shift below her. She heard her captors talking in Apache in front of and behind her. Eventually, the party stopped.
It was nearing sunrise, the sky a dark blue feathered with red. They were in an open field of tall grass surrounded by woods. The mountains rose to their left.
One of the Apaches threw Minx to the ground, her hands still tethered. Her mouth ached. When she spit, a tooth came out with the blood. Beside her were Edwin and Plethory, both filthy and bleeding from multiple wounds to their faces and bodies. One of Plethory's eyes was bruised so badly it couldn't open.
There were four Apaches on horseback, all in white shirts and dark pants over riding boots. Fuerte was the closest one. As he watched the captives, the other three walked over to a cleared out patch of dirt that formed a square within the field.
"What about the others?" Minx whispered to Plethory.
Plethory spit out blood.
Minx looked over at Edwin, barely clinging to life.
"You just gotta say it. You just gotta say it so I know. What happened to Vy? I found the harmonica."
"Wasn't me, honest. He kept borrowing money for cards. Wouldn't pay the fella back. Then he ran his mouth off one night, and everything came to a head. Fella who did it was gone the next day. You'd never find him, just some miner drifting from town to town."
"How long ago?"
"Three months. They got him with a knife, I was there when he was dying. He said, 'mail this back to my folks.' But they robbed him blind. No address, nothing. Fellas that did it burned everything in a fire afterwards. Sat around it, drinking in the street. Left his body there by the ashes. I buried him by a tree in the mountains. Made a cross. Fixin' to tell you this morning, didn't think you'd necessarily believe it."
Fuerte pointed to Plethory.
Two of the Apaches grabbed him, made him stand up. They led him over to the dirt patch. He took a couple steps and disappeared. His body thumped hard below, he howled fiercely for a few painful moments and then stopped screaming.
One of the other Apaches walked over to Edwin, examined his chest wounds then looked at Fuerte and shook his head. Fuerte nodded. The Apache cut Edwin's throat. He shook for a few moments then died.
Two of the men grabbed Minx and tossed her back onto the horse. They rode up a rough mountain path that eventually looked down on the main road connecting the stage coach line.
They saw an old man there driving a two-horse coach at a leisurely pace.
The Apaches conferred amongst themselves. Fuerte and one of the others were shaking their heads, but two of them couldn't be persuaded.
Eventually, the belligerent ones broke off, and headed down the slope for a patch of brush within rifle range of the stage. As they neared it, gunfire sprang out from all around, and the two men dropped dead. Fuerte and the other Apache took off into the mountains.
Somewhere along the incline, Fuerte decided that either Minx was slowing the horse down too much or it'd be worthwhile to lose some pursuers hoping to gallantly rescue the woman, so he cut the rope and dropped her onto the ground. She stared at a blank white sky through scattered treetops until the blonde cavalryman lifted her to her feet.
He was named Slazak. He had a circular scar beside one of his calming hazel eyes. He gave her water from his canteen, and asked what happened.
She tried to describe the field where Plethory and Edwin's bodies were, he said he'd do his best to find them. While the rest of the company pursued the Apaches, he took her down to the next stage stop, got her a room at the motel there, and arranged for her passage to Albuquerque.
He gave her his forwarding address, and she promised to write once things were settled.
When the coach deposited her in Albuquerque, she telegraphed her employers explaining the situation, and they made arrangements for her to get home. She was on a train the following morning, grasping the filthy harmonica, thinking of Slazak's kind eyes, and watching the desert pass by her.