“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Uriah “Bones” Bonebrake stared at the dashboard of his Dodge Ram 1500 pickup truck, watching as the arrow on the speedometer fell while the RPMs red-lined as he depressed the gas pedal. Not good. A green road sign loomed up ahead and he coasted the truck to a stop in front of it.
QUEMADURA, NEW MEXICO 2 MILES
“Almost made it.” He consulted his phone and found to his absolute lack of surprise that he had no signal. He’d have to hoof it into town and hope they had a repair place. He could handle minor repairs but, unless he missed his guess, he was looking at something major. He grabbed a bottle of water from the cooler, slung his leather jacket over his shoulder, locked the truck, and headed down the highway.
A stiff breeze took the edge off the hot summer day, but almost immediately, sweat began dripping down his face, only to evaporate in the dry desert air. He dribbled some water on the back of his neck and tried to focus on the landscape.
The golden sun hung high overhead in a cornflower blue sky, shining down on a rolling landscape of juniper, cactus, yucca, and a whole lot of dirt and rock. In the distance, two russet-colored buttes stood out in sharp contrast to the dull brown earth. Because he had nothing else to do, he focused on the hill on the left and tried to estimate its height, then calculated how long it would take him to free-climb the steepest side.
He’d just about completed his estimate when he heard the sound of a vehicle coming up behind him, and turned to see a battered red Honda Accord coming his way. He didn’t bother putting out his thumb. Few strangers were comfortable giving a ride to a long-haired, six foot five Native American.
The Accord slowed to a stop alongside him and the driver called out to him. “That your truck back there?”
Bones nodded as he looked the girl up and down. She was Latina with rich caramel skin, full lips, and glossy black hair that hung halfway down her back. She wore a pink midriff tank top, tight-fitting blue jeans, and big sunglasses.
“Yep. That’s me.”
“Out of gas? In this part of the country you’ve got to fill up every chance you get. Service stations are few and far between.”
“I wish. It’s something mechanical for sure.”
“Sorry to hear that. Hop in and I’ll give you a ride.”
Bones heard the passenger door unlock and he slipped inside. The air conditioning was running at full blast, but produced little in the way of cool air. It was in dire need of juicing up, but from the looks of the girl’s battered vehicle, he doubted she had the money for such a luxury.
“I’m Marisol. Mari for short.” She held out her hand to shake, and he found her grip surprisingly strong.
“Bones. And don’t bother asking my birth name, because I won’t tell you.”
“Fair enough.” She glanced in the rear-view mirror and guided the Honda back onto the empty highway. “We don’t see many natives off the reservation out here, but you’re clearly not from around here. I saw your Florida license plate. Seminole?”
“Cherokee. Originally from North Carolina, but I’ve lived in the Keys since I left the Navy.”
Mari sighed. “I’ve never seen the ocean. My parents were supposed to take me to Disney once when I was a kid, but my dad got drunk and wrecked our car.” She shrugged as if to say, ‘What are you gonna do?’
Bones managed a half-smile. “Saw plenty of that growing up. The stereotype about Indians and fire water isn’t entirely undeserved.”
“How about you? Do you drink?”
“I wouldn’t say no to a cold one, but it’s a little early in the day for a drink. How about tonight?” He glanced at the ring finger of her left hand, saw it empty, and flashed his most roguish grin in her direction.
Panic flashed across Mari’s face. “Oh, I didn’t mean that. I work at a bar and grill in town. The only one of either, in fact.” She turned and stared into the side-view mirror. “I just thought you might like to drop in after you get your truck taken care of.”
As she turned her head, Bones caught a glimpse of a bruise over her right eye. So the big sunglasses weren’t solely for the purpose of keeping down the glare.
“It’s cool,” he said. “I’ve got an idea. How about, after your shift is over, I buy you a drink. Maybe whoever gave you that shiner will be stupid enough to show up and say something about it.”
Mari jerked her head around and the car swerved into the emergency lane. She overcorrected in the other direction, and Bones snatched the wheel with one hand and guided them back on course.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m just really out of it today. I got this,” she gestured at her eye, “rock climbing. Had a bit of a fall.”
“So you don’t have a boyfriend?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“Is he the one who took you rock climbing?”
Mari grimaced, her jaw working for a few seconds. “The repair shop is right up there.”
She nodded at a metal building with a large open bay on the front. A sun-bleached mural of hot air balloons floating across a desert landscape adorned the near side.
“Balloon Fiesta,” Mari said. “They do it in Albuquerque every year. You should check it out.”
“Sounds like something white people would do.” Bones said, eliciting a giggle from Mari. “I might check it out if the beer is cold and the women are hot.”
“So you like old, white women?” Mari teased, clearly relieved that the subject had moved away from her bruised eye.
“I just like women.”
Mari pulled into the parking lot of Miguel’s Automotive and Pawn. Rather, she drove off the road and onto the flat patch of dirt in front of the building, brought the car to a stop, but left the engine running. “Here’s where I leave you.”
“Thanks for the ride.” Bones squeezed his large frame out of the Honda. He immediately felt the heat of the sun on his black hair and wondered if Manny’s had air conditioning. “Where do I go if I want to get that drink later?”
“Down there on the left. It’s part of the motor lodge. If you’re stuck here overnight, that’s the only place to stay in town.”
In a different set of circumstances, Bones would have asked if she had room at her place, but the girl’s situation was clearly complicated. A part of him wanted to do something about it, but he’d been in such situations before and knew how little difference his style of intervention truly made.
“All right. I might see you later.”
Mari wiggled her fingers in a dainty sort of wave and drove away.
Bones managed a grin and then turned and headed for the front door of the repair shop. A sign in the dust-coated window read, “We Sell Green Chile.” He pushed the door open and stuck his head inside. A glass-topped counter filled with knives, pistols, and turquoise jewelry ran across the room. Behind it, shelves piled with old DVDs, video games, and various odds and ends lined the back wall. In the corner, a gun case coated in cobwebs held a few shotguns and a single Glock.
“Lots of crap for sale, but no one to do the selling,” he muttered. “Hello?” he called.
He waited for a count of twenty before calling out again, louder this time. “Yo! Anybody here like money, because I need to spend some.”
A toilet flushed somewhere behind the bookshelf. A few seconds later, a portion of shelf swung forward and a graying man with dark brown skin and light brown teeth grinned his way into the shop.
“No need to rush me, bro. In New Mexico, we all operate on Indian time.” His face went slack. “Whoa! No offense, big man.”
“It’s cool. My grandfather says the same thing about the reservation where I grew up. Are you Miguel?”
The man frowned and then cackled with laughter. “No way, bro. Miguel was my grandfather. I’m Manny.”
“I’m Bones.” They shook hands. Manny’s grip was surprisingly strong.
“You’re going to stand out around here. There’s only two kinds of people in Quemadura: Mexicans and Mixicans.”
Bones frowned. “What’s a Mixican?”
“Mexican mixed with something else.” Manny cackled. “Except for the cactus, juniper, and chile, everything here is some shade of brown.”
Bones decided he liked the old man in spite of his annoying laugh.
“So, what brings you in today? I don’t imagine you drove here just to check out my knife collection.” He tapped the glass counter with a gnarled finger, the grease under the nail forming a black crescent moon.
“Truck broke down.” Bones described the problem and gave the make and model of his truck.
Manny clucked his tongue. “Should have bought a Ford.”
“I’ll debate you on that all day long. It’s ten years old and I’ve never had a problem. Until now,” he added.
“Consuela’s thirty years old and she’s been nothing but problem, but she still runs. Come on. We’ll get your truck.”
Consuela was a battered Ford pickup whose brown paint blended seamlessly into the landscape. Manny kept up a steady stream of chatter about the menu at the Blue Corn Grill where Mari worked. He recommended the cheese quesadilla, primarily because he had his doubts about the meat served up at the town’s only diner.
“You ever see a roof rat? Grande! Everybody’s got them. My place has got them. “The motor court’s got them. But Blue Corn? No roof rats. Think about that. Where do they go?”
“Into the burritos?” Bones guessed.
Bones vowed to stick to beer and chips until he got back onto the road.
Half an hour later, after towing Bones’ truck back to the shop and giving it a quick inspection, Manny delivered the news Bones had feared.
“You dropped your tranny, bro.”
Under a different set of circumstances, he would have turned that phrase into a perverse joke, but when it meant he had to pony up the cash for a new transmission, humor was in short supply. There went most of what he’d planned on spending in Vegas.
“How soon can you have it ready?”
Manny considered the question. “I can get the parts day after tomorrow. I can have the work done the next day, assuming my nephew’s sober enough to help me.”
Bones resisted the urge to roll his eyes. This was, after all, the smallest of small towns. “Looks like I’ll be hanging around town for a few days. Any suggestions on how to kill time?”
Manny shrugged. “I think the motor inn has HBO.”
Bones gathered his belongings, thanked Manny for his help, and headed off down the road toward the motor inn. The heat rising up from the asphalt shimmered, lending the town a surreal shimmer. One hour ago he’d been on his way to Sin City to reconnect with an old flame. Now he was facing three days of zero kicks on Route 66. Sometimes life sucked.