Read the short story Amber Dakota: The Hunter, written by student Megan Mimiaga that inspired the dance.
Amber Dakota: The Hunter
By Megan Mimiaga
A Meeting on the Train
The rhythmic dull knock of the wheels against the foot-wide wood slats almost had me sleepy and fooled that this trip might be for pleasure and not for business. I pull the last mouthful of whiskey past the clunky over-sized ice cubes. The cold squares rush toward my nose in a hurry and wet the tip before I swallow. I hand the glass smeared with red lipstick back to the Bar Car’s attendant. I slip him a piece of nickel and nod my wide-brim, black, hyde hat. He flashes me a charming smile. No thanks.
At a carved wooden table near the rear of the locomotive I watch the Sierra Miwok territory spin by. Rust-brown mountain faces stand stubbornly at attention in the distance; like they exist only in a far off painting that I’ll never reach the surface of. They mimic the hard expressions of my ancestors, defensive. The vast, immediate desert is interrupted with the faint shadowing of a dust-drawn station settlement up ahead. Northwest; about an hour’s reach away. Here, on the furthest outskirts of the town still sit former cone-shaped homes, made of stacked bark planks. The kind I grew up in. The kind I abandoned during the Industrialization. I can see that further in towards our destination, the planks begin to straighten and become boxes instead of cones. It’s like traveling through time.
“You Dakota?” a nervous voice interjects.
“Sit.” I don’t shift my gaze.
The trembling White visitor braces himself onto the bench opposite me. He gathers his dust colored jacket and rests his crumpled, liver-spotted hands on the table top. We’re both quite for a moment.
“They say y’er the best at what ya do,” he cracks a whisper, “I heard the rumors you was a Native but I sure wadn’t expectin’ a lady…” His accent is thick with the west.
I reply with only a sharp look. His eyelids are sunken and yellowing. I can hear his wheezing. Worried about his ability to pay a decent bounty, I ask: “What’s the job…”
“My brother’s the mayor in Fort Sierra…well, he was may’r. See, He’s been kidnapped by a group’a bandits. Probably already murdered ’n cold blood,” he shakes his head as he removes his leather hat to expose few grey strings of hair and more discolored skin.
“Go on.” I lean forward and as I do a long raven-black strand of hair falls into my face.
“I got a letter,” He unfolds a half piece of stationary. “I found it, on my brother Sal’s desk in the Town Hall. I don’t make much sense of it, but I think he was in sort some of trouble. It’s signed by a man, names Lou Zhang. I met ’m once. Came ta Fort Sierra lookin’ to buy some cattle. Instead, he…he…well he vio-lated a woman.” The man waits for my reaction to this, like I’m supposed to tremble like a lamb. He coughs, “…Suzanne was beat up purdy bad when we found her in her Daddy’s barn. ’N we ran Lou outta town. Now I hear he’s trying his hand at the gold diggin’ business up in the Washoe area.” He refolds the letter and slides it across the table to me. I place my palm down onto it to keep the fold from bouncing open.
“Natives own those mines in Washoe.” I glance back outside and push myself up against the dusty window pane. The nearest town station is now forty minutes out, and its silhouette now sharp against the orange setting sun. “I’ll need the money up front. This train doesn’t go as North as Washoe, I’ll need to buy a horse and ride from here.”
“Oh, yeah, yeah I got it, here…” He rustles in his inner coat pockets a moment and holds out a red, cloth, draw string sack. “Is this enough?” I’m careful to take the bag from the bottom and avoid touching his hands. Who knows what kind of European diseases this White man carries. I open the sack to see shining bits of gold and silver and nickel. This is more than enough.
“You’re a little short. But I’ll do you the favor,” I force a sigh. “You have a preference?”
“On what?” The train whistles as town approaches.
“You want this Lou locked up? Or if I get a clean shot, did you want me to take it…”
“Dealer’s choice I guess.”
A Meeting at the General Store
The next morning is cold, but bright. I sit in a wicker chair outside the Tallahassee Lodge and watch people go in and out of the General Store across the way. I stuff a wad of sticky tobacco into my lower lip. A White woman in a faded blue dress goes in holding her blonde son’s hand. She comes out with a bag of grain occupying both arms. A lizard hugging a river rock for warmth scurries out of the way as the little blonde boy reaches for it. The reptile returns to sunbathing once the mother and son are out of earshot.
About an hour later, a traditional Native man ties up his horse outside and heads into the store. He’s Miwok, or Paiute, I can’t quite tell by his necklace or nasal ring. His hair is as long as mine, and his skin looks leathered to the touch. He looks old enough to have been a leader in the resistance. He’s probably one of the reasons the Whites still remain out-numbered here, as opposed to the rest of the lands. I suppose I’m one of those reasons too. I stand, leaning over the splintering wooden railing. The Native man is inside the General Store for longer than a half hour. I get an idea.
I spit a dripping wad into the dirt below the lodge’s porch. It splashes dust around it like the first rain drop of a November storm. I walk casually over to the wrap around veranda of the General Store. Beside the door, I peer in, but the sun is glaring hard outside and the contents of the store are forced into shadows. I casually cross the open entryway like a potential customer. I slowly crouch-walk over to the pole where the horse is tied up. Easy, easy. I whisper with my eyes. The horse’s gentle eyes mirror mine: black, with thick, long lashes. The tether comes unraveled smoothly. But as I go to mount the powerful stallion, I kick the spittoon can and it clank-clank-clanks down the front steps. I wince. I didn’t say it was the best idea.
“Hey!” The Native comes running from the store with a jar of honey waving in hand. I drive my spurs into the belly of the beast and turn a corner before his gun fires. The horse lets out a liberating whinny. Stallion and I are headed Northeast for Washoe, with a pocket full of coins.
As the town becomes grey specks on the horizon, Stallion slows to a saunter. I reach into my boot and pull the letter from the buyer. It reads:
Sal, YOU OWE ME. The deal is off. You’re a downright coward for this.
- East Washoe. Where the sun don’t shine. I’ll expect you in a fortnight, otherwise you can be expecting me.
The Surface of the Painting
From the base of the mining village in Washoe, the sheer granite faces of the mountains taunt from above. The air is low and fogged and grey in the morning. This is no longer a high-desert terrain. Pine trees jut up against the sky; giving an earthy, damp undertone to the crisp air. There’s no telling how high the mountains reach, not until a man scrambles half way up and can’t get half way down. On the open-woods trail, a crowd of men and women in soot-covered clothes, wielding shovels and pans, meander past us. I’m looking down at them from Stallion’s back, sticking out like a mountain myself. The miners are mixed. Mostly White, some Chinese, I take it as a good sign that none are Natives.
Stallion and I wander through many clusters of dark village homes. It’s early dawn when Stallion brings me into East Washoe. We amble past the Sherriff’s Station, a closed café, and stop in front of the Gun Smith shop. Door’s wide open. I decide I need ammunition before seeking Lou Zhang.
My boots hit the wood floor hard with every step and it echoes, like the place is hollow underneath.
“Mornin’ little lady. You lost?” A fat, sweaty, pig of a man appears behind the counter. He’s fleshy and pink in the face. His name tag reads Richard and he’s wiping his hands on a stain-covered rag. The room smells of metal, like sucking on pennies. I have another idea. I clear my throat and remove my hat to let my oil-black hair swing down around my tiny waist.
“Well aren’t you sweet. Richard, is it?” I lean over the counter and toy with the embroidered letters on his chest; pushing out my breasts like a rustled hen. He smells like urine. “You see, my daddy sent me in to town today. To buy some shiny little bullets for this,” I dangle the revolver from my index finger, wrist bent from it’s weight. It swings like I’ve never held it before. “Can you show me how to load it?” I’m tilting my head to expose my soft, vulnerable neck and sink my teeth into my bottom lip. I’m leaning even further over the counter, really selling it now.
“Why sure, Beautiful. Let me just open it on up for ya,” He brushes the back of his sausage fingers against my cheek. I try not to shudder or pull away. “First of all you hold it like this. And it unclicks like this…you put one bullet in each hole…” He drops the last bullet. “Whoops!” He puts the gun down on the counter and bends to pick it up, grunting and huffing trying to bend over his own belly. “Got it!” He proudly displays the bullet in his palm. He looks down toward the empty counter, confused. He looks up at the barrel of the revolver with me behind it. Five bullets should be enough.
“You’ve been a big help,” I wink. Richard put his hands up, stammering, sweating again. I pull back the heel of the gun until it clicks and walk backwards out of the shop.
A Meeting at the Coyote Saloon
That night, I find myself at the threshold of the Coyote Saloon, in the heart of East Washoe. The place is lively with Natives, dancing and laughing with White women dressed in lace-lined, velvet dresses with tight corseted tops and hoop-skirt bottoms. Candles flicker at every table, on every shelf. It smells more of candle wax than of booze. I approached the bar slowly, weaving through drunk swaying men and spinning, bouncing whores.
“Whiskey,” I answer to the bartender’s questioning look. The back of the bar is lined with green and brown bottles and two massive mirrors reflect the sparkling room. He comes back with a glass for me, and one for himself. His swig wets his mustache.
“Say, don’t I know you?” He leans in to take glances at my face more than once.
“No…no, just, rolled into town today. You’re thinkin’ of someone else.”
I say matter-of-factly, hoping he takes a hint. I take a sip to occupy my mouth and survey the room. The music is swinging and the people’s laughter roars. He pours more whiskey into my glass.
“No I know you! I’d seen y’er picture somewhere…Those eyes…You’re the Hunter! You’re Amber Dakot—”
“Tonight, I am nobody,” I put a finger to my lips to shush the excited man. I slip him a piece of silver from the red pouch. He fills the glass one more time and fades out of my view as I immerse myself back into the cheering, clapping crowd. The music surges.
Silk brown hair lashes across my face. I stumble into a dancing woman wearing a deep purple dress.
“Oh my! Pardon me, Miss,” She giggles and grabs my hands to dance without skipping a beat. We’re turning and turning and I’m out of rhythm but I can’t help but smile and laugh at myself. Her eyes are a sharp green. Her lips look like soft, supple, pink balloons. I pull her in closer, resting my hand in the small of her back, tracing the lines of the corset. I’m getting the hang of this. Even my breasts are bouncing now. Our dance takes us all around the room. We are everywhere.
We stagger out the back door of the Dance Hall, attached at the mouth. Her lips are as silky as I thought they were. I lift her with ease and run my hands up her dress and squeeze her thighs. She wraps herself around me, pulling us closer together by my jacket collar. Her hair is in my face again. I pin her to the back wall of the Saloon. She is kissing my neck, my ears. I remember: You’re a downright coward for this. I open my eyes. A wanted poster is nailed to the building. Lou Zhang stares back at me. Right, business. Not pleasure.
Business, Not Pleasure
I wake the next morning in a foreign bed, staring at a wood-slatted ceiling. A candle burns on the dresser and the window is open, a breeze lightly pushing at the yellow curtains. The scent of lavender and the imprints in the rustled sheets tell me I slept next to the silky haired brunette. She is gone. I can already hear glasses clanking downstairs in the saloon. I slip on my jeans with ease and pull on one boot at a time. I tie my hair up, with the stubborn loose strands falling right back down, and replace my hat. I decide on a whiskey for breakfast.
“Can you point me in the direction of an address?” I sigh after the first vanilla-hinted sip.
“Y-yeah, sure, what can I do you for?” The bartender is pretending to be suave but is all too excited to be helping me. He grabs a rag to wipe down the already-spotless glazed wooden bar.
“500 East Washoe. You know where that is?” I look up from the letter.
“Hm, well, uh this main avenue here is called East Washoe Way, and this bar is numbered 217.. I imagine 500 is only a few blocks away.” It’s a start.
I squint outside as my eyes adjust to the brilliant sun. You’d think the mountains and tall trees would cast shadows over this town until at least noon. I untie Stallion from the back of the saloon and we head further East as the building numbers climb.
The bartender was sorely mistaken. The numbered houses and buildings are becoming increasing spread out. In about two hour’s time we’re in the mid 400 blocks. Sweat runs down the side of my face, pasting strands of hair in front of my ears. The mountain range far behind us now. Shops and businesses become scarce and cabin homes become abundant. I can tell this is a Native neighborhood by the floating scent of Rice Grass Stew coming from the passing homes. The last few ones are spread out, with a mile or so between them. But I can always see the next one on the horizon, so I keep Stallion stepping along. House number 476… 488… 492. That’s the end of the line. No 500 in sight. Stallion and I spin slowly in circles as I yank continuously frustrated on his reins. I cover my face and eyes with my hands and let them slide down to my neck. This clearly isn’t right, the sun is shining like an angry spitting fireball. This might be the end of the line for the hunt as well.
I decide to seek shelter in one of the last numbered homes. Stallion needs water. 488 looks abandoned and I spot a well out behind the structure. Its windows are boarded and the door is crooked open, the door knob completely missing. I step inside.
“Hello?” No response. I find a bucket in the kitchen and fill it for both Stallion and I. I drink first and refill the bucket. It’s ice cold from down, deep underground. He drinks unceasingly while I head back inside to escape the dessert heat. In the main room dust filters through the streams of light coming through the cracks in the window boards. Like tiny swirling dancers, the dust is constant. The floor sounds deep and hollow with every step. It reminds me of the well. It reminds me of Gun Smith Shop I visited days ago. There must be a basement. Where the sun don’t shine. I wander back outside to find Stallion still slurping water, long strings of drool globbing back into the bucket from his lips. I decide to braid his mane and tail. While I’m twisting and weaving his thick, rough hairs I realize how badly he reeks of being a wild animal. From behind Stallion I glance up at the scraping-white paint on the abandoned home. My eyes trace the window frames, the corners of the walls coming together. I glance downward to let my eyes relax, and for the first time I see hatch-doors that open up from the ground. I was right. A basement.
I pull hard on the stubborn doors as my tiny hands have trouble grasping both handles at once. Finally, they fling open, knocking me back onto my ass. A cloud of dirt fills the area with a musty smell and it catches in my throat. I’m coughing and waving my arms around to clear the air. The steps down into the basement are steep and narrow. At the bottom it opens up into a small room no bigger than a bank vault. I hear rustling under my feet. I find a candle and matches and take a seat on a wooden crate. In the light I can see slips of paper, stationary, littering the ground like sawdust. I pick one up and unfold it. IOU. Nickel. I unfold another. IOU. 300 dollars. And another. IOU. One gold bar. No wonder this house is empty, must’ve been repossessed by the bank. There’s hundreds of IOU’s here. Something flashes forward from the fogs of my memory…Sal, YOU OWE ME… The deal is off…500. East Washoe. Where the sun don’t shine… That’s it. Basements. That’s where the sun don’t shine. Zhang is hiding in a basement. And.. and 500 isn’t an address. It’s a debt. I know the first place to look.
A Meeting with Lou Zhang
Stallion is galloping hard on the compacted dirt of East Washoe Way as the Coyote Saloon comes back into sight. We pass it, not without thought of smiling prostitutes, and we whirl up a cloud of dust as we do. I’m glancing from left to right. A small hotel, a brick bank, and more cabin housing in between. Finally, we slow to a hushed walk before reaching the front of the Gun Smith Shop. I pull Stallion into a side alley and wrap around the back of the structure.
“Stay right here until I need you,” I whisper and pat his long nose after finishing the knot. I kiss his fur spot right between the eyes. I tip-toe, quick-footed back around to the front door. I note that there’s no spittoon to cause a calamity. The porch creeks under my weight but from outside the door I don’t see the tubby, warthog Richard behind the counter. I cross the threshold with a hand on my gun, still in it’s holster. Richard comes whistling out of a back door labeled “Workers Only” while holding a half-eaten pastry. I freeze.
“Hey! You!” Richard drops the pastry and it crumbles when it hits the floor. I duck behind a shelf full of tools as he grabs a rifle off the wall behind the counter. I pull the gun from it’s holster. Concentrate. I aim carefully, closing one eye while he’s setting his weapon. I pull back the heel of the gun until it clicks. I let out a calculated, steady breath. I pull the smooth trigger hard. Richard slumps to the ground, his face stopping in front of the pastry crumbs. Zhang will have heard the noise. Four bullets left. I run over to the “Workers Only” door and am greeting with a descending staircase.
I step as lightly as I can but it’s pitch-black in the stairwell until I come to a landing. Dull oil-lamps glow around the basement. Just like 488 East Washoe Way, strings of light and dust shine through the floorboards above. I can see where the outline of Richard’s body lay, creating a lumpy shadow above. There’s three long tables covered in neat rows of tiny bottles lined up. They’re labeled: Opium. I pick up a pipe and thumb it around in my hand.
“Hmmph!Hmm!” An older man in a tattered suit is wriggling, tied to a chair facing the corner. I run over and pull the rope from his mouth as tears run down his face. “You have to help me!” He gasps.
“Are you Sal?”
“What is this place? Where’s Zhang!” I interrupt and shake him by the shoulders with urgency. My hat falls to the ground, loosening and exposing my ebony waterfall locks.
“Opium den…opium. I was tradin’ Lou opium for minin’ explosives. But, but this last time I needed the high real bad and I knew the dynamite we had leftover was defective but I gave it to ‘em anyway. Please you gotta help me Miss I—”
“Shh! Someone’s coming…” I shove the rope back into Sal’s teeth as he weeps, muffled. I creep through the darkness to put my back against the underside of the stairs. I grip the handle of the gun tight. I see a foot step onto the last stair. I spin and fire upward. Three bullets left. I look closely at the person’s face in the darkness. He’s Chinese but he’s much smaller and younger-looking than Zhang. I step over his body and ascend the stairs, gun positioned in both hands, at the ready. Up in the Gun Smith Shop it’s quiet. I keep my head on a swivel. There’s a loud clank from behind a big bureau and another Chinese man with shoulder-length hair darts for the back door. I fire without thinking and miss, making a quarter-sized hole in the wood wall. Two left. That wasn’t Lou Zhang either; I need to be more careful.
I scurry past table and shelves to the backdoor and burst out. No one is around. I continue to turn and look over my shoulder; to watch my back. That’s when I notice. Stallion is gone. The rope still hangs, swaying from the pole. I try not to let it distract me. I peer around the corner, into the alley Stallion and I came through earlier. Nothing. I make my way around to the front, and out into the open. It’s as though Washoe has always been a ghost town, only revealing itself after my time down in the opium den.
“Ha, You da infamous Da-ko-ta?!” A snickering voice behind me calls. I spin on my heel and raise my gun. It’s him. It’s Lou Zhang.
“Amber Dakota. My name is Amber Dakota.” I retort.
“You a woman! Hah-ha silly woman! And Brown!” He’s hysterical, bending over in side-splitting laughter. Slapping his knees. I pull back the heel of the gun until it clicks. I reply with a pull of the trigger. It pierces Zhang in the left thigh. “Ahh! Ahhg, you cross, little Injun bitch!” He hollers, hopping around, eventually falling to the dirt. One lone bullet, for the finish.
I walk indifferently over to Lou Zhang’s struggling body on the floor, wriggling like a pill bug on it’s back. For the last time, I pull back the heel of the gun until it clicks and aim it at his pain-stricken face. But before I pull the trigger I feel a sudden, warm, sharp pain in the back of my skull. My body flattens to the ground beside Zhang like a rag doll. The sound of my body giving way is like a sack of potatoes rolling onto a farmhouse table. Staring down at me is a weathered, Native man with a nose piercing, and a necklace. I only recognize him as he mounts a blurry Stallion before the world goes black.