Tess Mercury and the Wanton Wife
Or How Tess met Lightning Hazel
By Eleanor Prophet
“You Tess Mercury?”
I swiped the back of my hand across my face to wipe away the moist, stray strands of dark hair sticking to my forehead. The sun beat down on the barren Arizona desert. I squinted through the sweat dripping into my eyes from under the bandana covering my sopping hair. The man coming towards me across the packed, well-worn dirt of the horse corral shimmered in the heat coming off the ground like the devil come to offer me my wildest dreams in exchange for my immortal soul. He had a pointy black goatee and was dressed in a black suit and top hat. He looked as unruffled in the dusty, sweltering heat as the Prince of Darkness watching the sinners burn in the lake of fire. He stepped through the tall, peeling white gate around the corral as though it had yielded to him without moving at all. I’d seen his kind before. They always meant trouble.
“That ain’t my name no more,” I drawled.
“You’re Tess Mercury? The bounty hunter?” He looked at me over the gleaming back of Chantilly Lady as I carefully fastened the straps of her saddle. He didn‘t look especially impressed, but all men were like that when they met me for the first time.
“I told you; that ain’t my name. I don’t do that no more. I’m retired.”
Ah, hell. It was too late.
“It’s Tess Mercury!”
An explosive noise from behind me sent me flat on my stomach on the dirt-packed ground, but it wasn’t a gunshot I’d heard. The stable door flew open, and a tall, wiry man in faded, dirty chaps raced past us through the corral, startling the wranglers. The horses tossed their heads and danced nervously in place. He leapt effortlessly over the fence surrounding the corral and pelted toward the cactus-strewn desert beyond. I cursed and leapt to my feet, racing past the startled wranglers and their charges after the fleeing fugitive. I drew my pistol from under my poncho, but it was no good. He’d escaped over the tall fence surrounding the Jagged J Ranch, into the vast and endless wilderness beyond. I cursed angrily, kicking the ground and sending a shower of dust towards the devil in the black suit.
“This better be good,” I growled. “I’ve been here a week after that fella. That was Yellow Conway. He’s wanted for stage-coach robbery. The price on his head is two hundred dollars, which you just lost for me.”
The devil smirked. “How about twice that?”
I lifted an eyebrow. “Yeah, all right, I’ll hear ya out.”
My former cowboy comrades from the Jagged J Ranch weren’t so keen on me once they’d found out who I really was, but it didn’t make no difference. Sweeping the stables at a hot, dirty horse ranch wasn’t exactly my dream job, anyway. I ordered a whiskey and sat beside the devil at the bar at Miss Mary’s saloon. He told me his name was John Harley, but I wasn’t sure he was telling me the truth. It was all the same to me.
“What do you want, Harley?” I demanded, slamming my glass on the beaten wooden bar in front of me.
“My wife, Hazel, has run off.” His accent was strange, flat and oddly hissing, but I didn’t recognize it. I suspected he might be putting it on a bit, but I didn’t much care if he’d come from Hell itself. He wasn’t from around here, anyway. I wondered how he’d found me, but that didn’t really matter much, either. If they couldn’t find me, they probably didn’t really need me.
“Yeah? What’s that got to do with me?”
“I need you to find her.”
“I don’t normally do stuff like that. I hunt fugitives, not runaway brides. Call the police or a private eye.”
Harley’s mouth twisted unhappily. “I’ve done that, and they tried, but my Hazel–well, she ain’t a normal lady.”
I raised my eyebrows. “What sort of lady is she?”
“Not much of a lady at all. They call her Lightning Hazel. She’s a scientist, and she’s fond of chemicals. I sent a few Pinkertons on her tail, but they all came back with nothing but some fresh burns. They recommended I find you.”
I sighed and motioned for another round of drinks. “Where’d you last see her?”
“They said she’s been holed up in Fortune City, New Mexico. A saloon called The Ace-High.”
I smirked. “A drinkin’ lady, huh? If you know where she is, why don’t you just go get her yourself?”
He frowned. “I tried. She won’t come with me.”
“You want me to hogtie her or somethin‘?”
“If you have to.”
I considered him in interest. “What’d you want her back for, anyway? Sounds like she ain’t much of a wife.“
He lifted his chin with great dignity. “She may not be much of a wife, but she’s mine.”
I smiled. “Yeah, all right. Four hundred dollars, you say?”
“Ok. You got yourself a deal. But you pay up front. I ain‘t losin‘ another bounty today.”
“You sure this is the place? It doesn‘t seem much like the sort of place a respectable lady hangs out.” Quimby Burton asked skeptically. He screwed up his face, peering up at the large, hand painted sign swinging precariously over the door to the dilapidated saloon on the corner of the main thoroughfare. The street was quiet, and the saloon seemed to be the only blight on the otherwise respectable face of Fortune City, New Mexico. Loud, boisterous music and raucous laughter drifted through the open door.
“Yeah, well, she ain’t so respectable, from the sounds of it.“ I replied and stepped inside the Ace-High Saloon.
The saloon was dusky despite the brilliant sunlight outside and packed with all manner of man, woman, child, wrangler and dandy even this early in the day. Most of the patrons were gathered in the center of the room, around a small woman with long, curly blonde hair who was dancing spiritedly on a table. She swung her skirt as she kicked up her heels in time to the piano playing an upbeat two-step in the corner. The men around her clapped their hands, laughing and cat-calling.
I sighed, drawing a small, woodcut of Mrs. John Harley from my belt. “That’s our girl,” I said, glancing at my companions. Quimby’s brilliant white teeth were bared in a grin, but Vaughn looked completely unruffled by the drunken dancing lady. Nothing ever ruffled Vaughn. The large, hairless black man eyed our bounty impassively. “Vaughn?”
His large, dark eyes rolled towards me. “Nah, Tess. You got this one. You don’t need me to take down a little girl.”
“You got that right.“ I smirked and stepped forwards. My hand hovered instinctively over the gun still strapped in its holster on my hip.
Lightning Hazel Harley spotted me as I approached. Her reaction was so violent and so unexpected, I hardly had time to dive for cover. She leapt off the table and whipped a gun from under her skirt, firing it at me. The damn thing didn’t fire bullets, though; blue arcs of lightning streaked through the air from its strange, bulbous barrel. The table in front of me exploded in a shower of splinters. The patrons scattered, and I upturned a table to huddle behind it for cover.
“What the hell’s she shooting?” Quimby demanded, dropping to the ground beside me and pressing his back against the tabletop.
I scowled. “Damnit. He didn‘t say she had a damned death ray.”
“I ain’t seen one of those since we went up against Fire Eyes Murdock,” Vaughn commented mildly.
“I reckon I should’ve asked more questions ‘bout why she’s called Lightning Hazel,” I said, peering cautiously around the tabletop.
“That might’ve been helpful, Tess.”
“I ain‘t goin‘ with you, Pinks!” Lightning Hazel screamed. Her unruly blonde head appeared over the top of the bar. She brandished her pistol in the air, and I flinched. It had made short work of the other table; our cover wouldn’t be worth a damn against that thing.
“We ain’t Pinks!” I shouted quickly. “Your husband sent us!”
Hazel paused with her finger on the trigger. She looked puzzled. “I ain’t got a husband.”
I glanced at Quimby and Vaughn, but they were as dumbfounded as me. “Are you Hazel Harley?”
“I’m Tess Mercury.”
“I ain’t ever heard a’you.”
“John Harley sent me to find you.”
“My husband is dead. I don’t know no John Harley!”
I rose up on my knees and peered over the top of the table at Lightning Hazel. She still held her pistol at the ready, but she didn’t seem as keen to fire it as she’d been before. “Well, who sent me, then?”
Hazel screwed up her face. “I don’t know. What’s he look like?”
“He looks like the devil. Black hair, little pointed goatee. Black suit. Top hat.”
Her posture changed dramatically, and she rose to her feet like an angry cat on its haunches. “That ain’t John Harley. And it sure ain’t my husband. That’s Rudy Ricone. He’s a loan shark out of Chicago.”
“Rudy Ricone?” Quimby muttered, his brow furrowing. His smooth, handsome sun-burnished face suddenly lit up. “I know that name. They call him Rudy the Roll. He’s wanted by the Feds for extortion and murder. Five hundred dollar bounty.”
I ducked back behind the table and met Vaughn’s sly eyes. “You thinkin’ what I’m thinking, Vaughn?” I asked, smirking.
His thick, dark lips turned up in a smile. “You know I am.”
“Hey, Hazel,” I called, popping my head back over the table top. “I think we might we able to come to some arrangement.”
Tumbleweeds danced silently along the beaten dirt road of the main thoroughfare in the dusty, desolate town of Rusted Spur, Kansas. Inside the saloon, a piano player pounded a half-hearted melody on the keys. I leaned back in the rickety wooden chair on the porch of Dirty Dandy’s Saloon and kicked my feet up on a spittoon. In the distance, a lone figure in black shimmered in the heat.
The man I’d known as John Harley paused on the wooden steps of the Dirty Dandy. He tipped his black bowler hat to me. “Mercury,” he said.
“Mr. Harley. Join me for a drink?”
He glanced distastefully at the open door of the lonely saloon. “I don’t think that will be necessary. Where is my wife?”
I smirked. “Round back with my boys.”
“She give you trouble?”
“You might’ve mentioned she carries a death ray.”
His thick lips twisted up humorlessly. “I didn’t want to negatively influence your decision to take the job. You look like you came out all right.”
“‘Course I did. I’m Tess Mercury.”
“I want to see my wife.”
“Yeah, yeah.” I rose and tilted my head toward the back of the saloon where a winding staircase led up to the rooms for let. “Come on.”
Quimby and Vaughn waited silently behind the saloon. They didn’t move when we rounded the corner. Between them, Lightning Hazel lay in a heap on the dusty ground. Thick ropes pinioned her arms to her sides, and her legs kicked feebly against the bind wrapped several times around her ankles. Her eyes rolled balefully between the devil and me as we approached. A red bandana in her mouth muffled her outraged cursing.
The dark man snorted with laughter. Hazel’s eyes narrowed dangerously. She writhed angrily for several moments. A cloud of dust swirled around her. “It looks like you boys are afraid of my little Hazel.”
Quimby scowled at him. “She’s feral.”
“Ah, she ain’t feral, Quim,” I told him reproachfully. “She’s just crazy.”
Vaughn’s smooth, impassive features didn’t change. “Why would you marry this woman?”
The dark man shrugged. “She’s easy on the eyes, and she came with a pretty large dowry.”
I curled my lip. “Don’t anyone marry for the right reasons anymore?”
“Well, it don’t matter the reason,” Quimby said. “You got the money, you got her back.”
I met Hazel’s eyes and took a step away from the devil beside me. His hand hovered suspiciously over his hip pocket. “You planning to double cross us, Harley?” I demanded.
Before he could answer, Hazel leapt abruptly to her feet with a triumphant laugh, tossing aside the trick ropes. “Too late! The jig is up!” she declared.
“What the hell is going on?” the devil growled.
“This is a trick! You’ve been ambushed! I ain’t never working for you, Roll!”
Quimby and Vaughn stepped toward the dark man. He held up his hands to ward them off. “What are you doing?”
“I’m getting back the bounty you lost for me in Arizona,” I told him cheerfully. “Thanks for the tip, Ricone.”
“You can’t do this! I’m Rudy Ricone!”
“I know who you are, and I don’t like bein’ lied to. I know Hazel ain’t your wife. I know you just want her to make guns for your gang in Chicago.”
Ricone’s dark eyes narrowed coldly. “You are making a mistake.”
“Nah, I don’t think so. You ain’t much without your enforcers. Get ‘im, boys.”
They stepped toward him. His hand moved in a flash toward his gun, but Quimby was faster. Quimby was always faster, and he was proud of it. He smirked. “Nice try, Ricone,” he said mildly.
Ricone’s eyes darted wildly between us. Hazel stepped toward him, brandishing a long, thin brass wand with two prongs on the end. I didn’t know what it did, but I suspected I didn’t want to be standing next to the Roll when I found out.
“Now, Hazel, let’s talk about this–” Ricone squeaked.
She ignored him. She thrust the pronged end of the wand toward him. He dodged away, but Vaughn’s large, solid figure stopped him cold. Hazel strode forward and thrust the wand into his belly. His body jerked and convulsed for several seconds while Hazel cackled gleefully.
He collapsed in a heap on the ground.
I stepped forward and caught Hazel’s arm. “All right, Hazel, that’s enough. He’s down.”
“Aw, but he ain’t even smokin’ yet. Just another minute?”
“Enough showboating, Hazel,” Vaughn scolded gently. “You’re toys are real neat. We get it.”
“Can I try next?” Quimby asked eagerly.
“All right, all right,” I said, scowling. “Can we get on with it? We’ve got a bounty to collect.”
“You’ll regret this, Mercury!” Rudy the Roll screeched as the iron bars slammed in his twisted, angry devil‘s face.
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah. Yeah.” They always swore vengeance, but it didn’t mean much when the bars were slamming on their faces. “You ain‘t never gettin‘ out of there, Ricone.”
I turned away from the small, stinking cell. The tall, barrel-chested sheriff eyed me distrustfully. “I didn’t think I’d ever see Rudy the Roll Ricone behind bars,” he remarked. “I guess I owe you one.”
“You owe me five hundred, Sheriff. I’ll take my money, and me and my posse will be on our way.”
He peered over my shoulder at the large black man, the sandy-haired cowboy and the scandalous blonde woman huddled in the lobby. “Yeah, I reckon I’d appreciate that. You bounty hunters…well.”
I lifted my eyebrows, but I took the stack of banknotes he offered all the same. I spun away from him, tucking them into my satchel. I tilted my head at my posse. “We’re done here. Nice work, fellas.” Outside, I divvied up the bounty and turned to our unexpectedly profitable cohort. “So, where you headed now, Hazel?”
The small, rosy blonde woman smiled. “Well, I hadn’t really thought much about it. Back to Fortune City, maybe. They like me there.” She kicked anxiously at the ground, then looked back up at me with a hopeful expression. “Say, I don’t suppose you folks need another member for your team here?”
I glanced at Quimby and Vaughn. Vaughn’s dark, even-featured face was bland, but his dark eyes were twinkling slightly. Quimby‘s expression was stern. “How many more of those ray guns you got, Hazel?”
She grinned wickedly. “Loads.”
Quimby turned to me with a luminous face, and the other two were looking at me expectantly. I considered Hazel a long moment. Finally, I sighed. “Yeah, Yeah. All right. You‘re in, Hazel.”