A 1987 red Cobra convertible, with its top-down, slides to a stop in the loose gravel alongside the highway. Brady looks back and sees a man with long black hair held back with a red cloth headband standing next to the road.
Brady seldom picks up hitchhikers, but the drive from Tucson has been long and monotonous, and the man is the first person Brady's seen since leaving the workshop.
Why the hell did he listen to Josh? "There's a shortcut that'll save you twenty miles," Josh said. "It's called Highway 66. It used to be the main east-west highway before they finished the new interstate."
He took Josh's advice because he was in a hurry to get home to his new bride and their two-year-old daughter.
Brady shifts the car into reverse and stops next to the stranger. "Hi bro, I almost missed you with the sun shining in my eyes. Where you headed."
"Same place as you."
"Well, hop in and toss your carry all onto the back seat."
The stranger does as he's instructed and pulls the car door closed.
"Where you from?" Brady said.
"Everywhere and nowhere?" said the stranger.
Brady looks over, thinking that's a strange answer, but he decides to let it pass. "By the way, my name's Brady. Brady Walsh. What's yours?"
As Brady pulls back onto the roadway, the wind muffles the stranger's response.
"You traveled this road much?"
"Enough," said the stranger.
"Then you must know if there's any place along here to get a bite to eat."
"There's a diner about ten miles up the road. It's not great, but the foods passable."
The sun's slipped behind the distant mountains, and it's growing dark by the time Brady and the stranger reach the diner.
"This the place?" Brady said as he pulled into the sand and gravel parking lot. A flashing red neon sign reads 'The Last Stand Diner.'
Battered pick-up trucks and a few saddled horses tied to hitching posts take up most of the lot.
Brady looks at the diner and shakes his head. "How in holy hell did a vintage railroad dining car end up out here?"
"Strange things happen in the desert," said the stranger.
Brady raises the convertible top, locks the Mustang, and follows the stranger into the diner. It smells of freshly brewed coffee and frying fry bread.
"Ya-ta-hey," said an overly obese woman flipping burgers on the grill. "Sit anywhere that's to your liking." The woman's hair, like the strangers, is blacker than a raven's wing and hangs in two long braids draped over her broad shoulders. Leather strips fashioned with turquoise beads bind the ends.
"Ya-ta-hey," said the stranger as he walked past the woman and selected a booth with a window overlooking the distant mountains. While they wait to order, Brady stares at the stranger. With his high cheekbones and almond-shaped lazy eyes, he could be either Navajo or Apache.
"Something wrong?" said the stranger.
"N-No," Brady said, trying to regain his composure. "Just trying to determine if you're Apache or Navajo."
"Does it matter?"
"Not really, but trying to guess a person's origin is a hobby of mine. I just left Tucson where I attended a three-day workshop on 'Facial Characteristics of Native Americans.'"
"Coffee?" said the waitress as she laid two menus and sets two glasses of water on the table.
Brady looks up into the blackest eyes he'd ever seen. So black, they appear to glow.
"Y-yes, please," Brady said, fumbling to turn over the white coffee cup sitting next to the napkin holder.
The waitress, whose name tag reads Ginger, turns to the stranger. "And you?"
"Just the water."
"I'll be back to take your order as soon as I finish serving those two men at the counter."
Brady's eyes never leave Ginger's jean-clad ass as she walks behind the counter.
"That is one fine-looking woman," Brady said, stirring three spoonfuls of sugar into his coffee.
"Too young," said the stranger staring at Brady.
"What do you mean too young? They're never too young."
"You've been warned."
"About what?" Ginger is standing next to the table with a pencil and an order pad in her hands.
"Oh, it's nothing," Brady said. "Just men talk. I'll have the fry bread with two eggs (sunny side up), hash browns, bacon, and more coffee."
"And you, sir?"
The stranger shakes his head.
"Do you live around here?" Brady said.
A smile plays around the edge of Ginger's lips. "Not far."
As Ginger walked away, the stranger said, "You're asking for trouble."
"What do you mean?"
"Things aren't always what they seem."
"I can handle it."
"Maybe yes, maybe no."
When Ginger returns carrying his food, Brady looks up and smiles. "What time do you get off work?"
"I'd like to take you out."
"Any place that has more life than here."
"There's a roadhouse about three miles up the road that's outback. They've got live music and dancing. I could meet you there soon as I get off work."
Ginger turns to the stranger. "Are you sure you don't want anything?"
Ginger walks away, swinging her sexy hips.
As Brady works on his meal, his eyes roam over the diner. He isn't surprised to find he's the only white man. The rest of the patrons are Indians or, as they liked to be called, native Americans.
"Is this reservation land?" Brady said.
"Why do you ask?"
"Because everyone in here is Indian."
"Used to be before…."
"Move over," Ginger said, sliding onto the red leather seat next to Brady. "Mama said I could leave early, seeing there ain't that many customers."
"Great," Brady said, "but first, I have to use the restroom." When Brady returns, the table's been cleared, and, except for the two men sitting at the counter, the diner's empty. "Where's…? Hell," Brady mutters, "I don't know the guy's name."
"He said he had something to take care of, but he'd meet us at the juke joint."
Brady takes out his wallet. "What do I owe you for the meal?"
"Nothing, your friend took care of it. He said to tell you it was partial payback for giving him a ride."
Brady's a mile from the bar when he hears drums accompanied by the piercing howls of coyotes. Overhead, the sky, filled with stars and a three-quarter moon when he left the diner, is now ink black. Brady takes his foot off the accelerator and lets the car roll to a stop. The Cobra's headlights can't pierce a blackness so dense it reminds Brady of a trip he once made to an abandoned coal mine.
Maybe this wasn't such a good idea, Brady tells himself as the drumming grows louder.
Brady jams the car into reverse and hits the gas. The rear wheels grab, and the car hurtles backward out of control. Brady releases the gas, but it's too late. The Mustang bounces over a low ridge lining the side of the road and slides into a ditch.
"Damn!" Brady yells, pounding the steering wheel. He shoves the car into drive and guns the motor. The rear wheels spin but don't take hold in the sandy gravel. "Son of a bitch," Brady mutters as he reaches into the glove box and pulls out a flashlight. He flicks the light on, shoves the door open, and tumbles into the darkness. Brady scrambles to his feet and starts running back toward the diner. He's run ten steps when his foot catches the edge of a pothole. He pitches forward, hears a dull crack, and passes out when his head hit's a protruding rock. He comes to seconds later with a splitting headache, an excruciating pain radiating up his leg, and the thudding, relentless beating of the drums. Frantic, Brady searches for the flashlight. It's lying in the ditch, out of reach of his outstretched hand.
"Fuuck!" Brady yells, then wishes he hadn't. It feels like he's been jammed in the head with an ice pick. He reaches down to check his leg and finds a jagged end of bone jutting through his bloody pant leg.
Brady knows he's got to do something and do it fast, or he could bleed to death. Being careful not to move his injured leg, he pulls off his belt and wraps it around his thigh. He's gripped by a wave of nausea, but it passes quickly. Brady lays back, telling himself to relax. Ginger will be by soon, provided she hasn't changed her mind."
Brady's staring up into the impenetrable blackness when he realizes he no longer hears the drums or the coyotes. Instead, there's nothing but deafening silence.
Brady looks over and sees the stranger standing in the flashlights glow. But instead of being in the t-shirt and jeans he wore when Brady picked him up, he's now wearing deerskin leggings and a matching shirt with uniquely beaded moccasins. A wicked-looking knife protrudes from a leather strap around his waist. The trappings of an Apache warrior.
"What the hell is going on?" Brady said. "I need help."
The stranger points at the two bobbing headlights coming toward them. "It's on the way."
"Thank God," Brady sighs as the truck shudders to a stop. He hears a door open but can't see who gets out. He prays it's Ginger.
"Ya-ta-hey," the stranger calls out.
"Ya-ta-hey," said Ginger stepping into the headlight beams.
She, too, is dressed in the traditional clothes of an Apache maiden. A soft leather dress adorned with multi-colored beads hides the curves that were on display in the diner.
"Are you two going to just stand there and watch me bleed to death?"
"No," said the stranger as he picked Brady up and dropped him onto the bed of the pick-up.
Brady screams in pain when his shattered leg slams against the truck's metal surface. "Where are you taking me?"
Ginger leans down and whispers in Brady's ear. "You'll know soon enough."
When the truck comes to a jarring stop, Brady sees a huge glow lighting up the blackness.
"We're here," said the stranger lowering the tailgate.
Brady lifts his head. Waddling toward him is the chef from the diner with a meat cleaver dangling from a leather thong.