excerpt – The Pictograph Murders
Then First Man called another … being [and] said that he should be named ma’i, the coyote. But the coyote got angry and said: “Such a name!” And he declared that he would not have it; and that he would leave; but First Man called him back and told him that he would also be known as Atse’hashke,’ First Angry. After that the coyote felt better. He thought that he had a great name given him, and he went happily away, for he was told that he would know all the happenings on the face of the earth.
— Sandoval, qtd. by Aileen O’Bryan in Navajo Indian Myths
Following another frustrating day on site, the crew returned to camp, labeled artifacts, did chores, ate dinner, and took a few hours off. The chiefs, including Heather, who occupied a chair three down from the main group, sat in the mess tent with Dr. Hanks, laying out plans of attack for the remaining weeks of fieldwork. Rafferty had driven to Bluff to renew his search for Harry Hoskers. Students and volunteers went on walks, retreated to tents, or sat in the mess compound as the evening cool descended.
Still feeling the burn of confusion from her encounter with Tony, Alex took to the wash with Kit. Overhead the luminous cloud of the Milky Way conjured itself from the fading light, the stars’ varying degrees of brightness suggesting depth and distance like points on a 3D map. Looking up, Alex felt she was gazing into another canyon, a crack in the otherwise smooth night sky. She felt the tingle of a brisk breeze. The cottonwoods around her swelled and sighed with it.
The walk helped a little. When she returned, she dragged a chair out of the mess tent away from the fire, in the mood to sit quietly in the shadows. Kit lay a short distance away in her dugout beneath the dripping spigot of the water jug. Todd walked around from the back of the mess tent. Grabbing a chair from the dining area, he carried it over and sat beside Alex.
A few days ago when they had been washing dishes together, Alex had put a riddle to him: “What kind of keys won’t fit in a lock?” Dishwashing passed quickly as they played with answers. Piano keys. Monkeys. Florida Keys. Todd had said, Iraqis.
Now he asked her, “What kind of keys won’t fit in a lock?” Alex liked open-ended jokes. “I don’t know. What kind?”
“Honkies,” Todd said.
Alex sputtered in amusement. “Really, Todd,” she said. “Wherever did you hear such language?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “School I guess.”
“Sounds to me like you’ve been watching old shows on satellite TV.
“Maybe that’s it.”
The two sat quietly, enjoying the sights and sounds of camp. Sharp strode up to the fire carrying his guitar. He pulled up a chair and overlaid the usual camp noises with a pleasant stream of music. Like magic, more people flowed out of the greasewood and joined the fire circle.
Strains of Shenandoah began, with several voices joining Sharp’s. Alex picked up her chair to carry it to the fire circle and, with a jerk of her head, invited Todd to follow. He trailed after. Kit rose from her dugout and trotted over. The singing went on for over an hour. Eventually Sharp stopped and the group at the fire dwindled, leaving only Alex, Todd, Marina, and Kit. Rennie and Dr. Hanks sat in the tent with Heather, who had positioned herself in a corner so that she looked as if she was more or less alone.
Bill Wiggins walked up to the fire and made a big show of looking at his watch. “Nine forty-five, Todd,” he said. “Time to hit the sack.”
“In a moment,” Todd said.
Marina asked, “Anybody know a story?”
“I know a joke,” Todd said. “Or is it a riddle?” He looked at Alex.
“What is it?” Marina asked, cautious.
“Nothing bad. It’s this: What kind of keys won’t fit in a lock?”
And so it went. As Marina wound down a ghost story, Alex’s ears picked up a sound coming from the wash. She turned her head and listened. Some dog was barking. She thought it was probably a stray from Old Man Redhorse’s spread, then it dawned on her: that was Kit’s sharp, high-pitched alarm bark. She looked around the fire and over at Kit’s dugout by the table to confirm that she was gone.
“Oh-oh, that’s Kit,” Alex said, rising from her chair. “Something’s happening down at the wash.” She pulled a small flashlight from her pocket and set out.
“I’ll come with you,” Todd said.
Kit’s barking grew sharper. As they neared the wash, Todd bent down and picked up stones. “This is not good!” he said, gathering another. “This is not good at all!”
Alex listened to the barking, trying to read it. She noticed an edgy note to Kit’s voice—something she’d never heard before. Not that the husky ever did much barking. If she had anything to say, she usually yowled or yodeled. Yet, she didn’t sound desperate or panicked. What was going on?
When they reached the wash, Alex turned north, Todd walking nervously at her side, both his hands now filled with rocks. When the barking sounded close, Alex shone her flashlight up the wash. She couldn’t help staring in wonder at what she saw.
Several pair of eyes reflected the light back to her, disks of yellowish spectral sheen. They milled about restlessly. Alex picked out one set that glimmered differently, a pale red instead of yellow. Those pinkish-red lights would be the flashlight’s rebound out of the depths of Kit’s blue irises. As for the others …
“Coyotes!” Alex said in a low voice. Todd’s body went rigid and a sound of fright escaped his mouth. Alex stood still, watching the dim shapes, wondering what to do. She switched off the flashlight, then whistled low.
“Come, Kit!” she called. “Come on, girl!”
She had no idea if Kit would part company with the coyotes. If the dog decided her new, wild companions were more interesting than her human ones, Alex didn’t know that she could do anything about it. She held her breath as she waited for Kit’s response.
“Come here, Kit!” she called. Again, nothing happened except that the shadows twisting and turning in the wash receded deeper into the darkness. Suddenly, one shadow separated from the others and trotted straight toward Todd and Alex. Alex could smell the panic rolling off Todd.
Kit’s white chest faded into view as she trotted up to them with an unhurried gait. Alex switched on her light to look the husky over. She appeared unscathed. Her tongue rolled jauntily out of her mouth. Alex caught her by the collar, took one last look up the wash and, turning her back on the coyote pack, headed for camp.
It was an extreme act of will on Todd’s part to follow Alex’s cue. As they walked back down the wash, he wheeled around twice with a sharp intake of breath, stones ready to fly. Alex knew that in his world, close encounters with coyotes could bring bad luck, but trying to protect yourself against that threat by killing them could have an equally bad effect. The boy was not a traditionalist, but some beliefs died hard.
“They’re not going to follow us,” she said, remembering as she said it that a coyote did follow her once. No need for Todd to know that, though. As they walked back to camp, neither spoke. Todd veered off and headed straight to his tent without so much as “see ya.” Alex let him go.
She passed Raff’s truck in the lot, its engine ticking as it cooled. She could hear men’s voices and recognized Taylor’s laugh—not his merry one, his anxious one. Walking into camp, she found Marina and Rennie waiting at the fire.
“What was it?” Marina asked.
“Coyotes,” Alex said. “Down in the wash. They had her surrounded.”
“You’re kidding!” Marina exclaimed. She looked at Kit and shook her finger at her. “You’re running with the wrong pack!” she said. “You belong with us, not with those … hoodlumsl”
Kit looked Marina squarely in the eyes and yodeled in defiance. Alex grinned. Kit was never one to be told her business. Rennie said nothing, but returned to the tent with Dr. Hanks, Raff, and the other crew chiefs.
Marina gave Kit a doubtful glance and said good night. Alex looked at the husky.
“You stay here,” she said. “No more coyotes.”
She could have sworn she saw Kit roll her eyes. The dog padded into the mess area and threw herself into the duff with the tent’s shadow, as usual, dividing her into light and dark halves.
Satisfied that Kit would not return to the wash, Alex entered the mess tent and sat down with Rennie.
“Your dog been off baiting the locals?” Rafferty asked.
“Afraid so,” Alex answered. “The rabble rouser.”
“So, what now?” Hanks interrupted, returning the conversation to the main topic. “You called Mesa Verde and what happened?”
“Steve Henders said he hadn’t seen him around, but would ask some people, that maybe he’d just missed him or something.”
Taylor and Rennie looked at each other doubtfully. “If Harry Hoskers was at Mesa Verde, everyone would know,” Rennie offered. “He leaves no head unturned.”
Hanks nodded, brow creased. “Haven’t you heard anything about him from anybody down in Bluff? Blanding?”
“Just Fred Stax, his neighbor—the one Harry told he was going to Mesa Verde. Fred watched him load his gear into his truck and trailer and drive away.”
Rennie frowned. “That doesn’t mean anything. You could stand there and watch Harry ride into the sunset, and the instant you turn your back, he’ll pull a one-eighty and head for the moon.”
“True,” Raff answered. “Still, nobody’s seen him since Saturday morning. Usually he drops in to rattle my cage every two or three days, and it’s been, what? Five days without a Hoskers sighting? That’s downright abnormal.”
“And unlikely,” Rennie said.
“You two are making me nervous,” Hanks said. “Should I be?”
“You should have been nervous from the beginning,” Rennie said. “That man’s been walking around with a big target on his back.” She buried her head in her notebook.
Hanks sighed and gave Rafferty a look that said What am I going to do with her? A moment’s silence passed.
Then Rafferty said, “I’m driving straight down to Bluff. If Harry’s still not there, and if no one has seen him, I’m filing a missing persons report.”
Hanks sat stunned. “You mean, you think something really has ha-happened?” he stuttered.
“It’s a distinct possibility, given his track record,” Raff said. He stood up. “I’ll let you know. See ya, Ross,” Raff said. “Alex, Danny, Taylor.” He nodded at Heather. With that, he left camp.
Hanks glanced at Rennie, who promptly shut her notebook and put it away on the shelf at the end of the tent. “I’m done here,” she said as she stalked past.
Alex followed Rennie out to their tent, Kit trotting ahead of them. They lay on their cots for some time without speaking. Then Rennie broke the silence, avoiding the subject of Harry’s whereabouts. “Coyotes, huh?” she said. “Kit was romping with the bad boys.”
“Don’t know what it is with her and coyotes. I think she knew she was in trouble but figured if she ran, she’d be in for worse. So she called for backup. You should have seen her trot out of the middle of that gang, big smile on her face like she was walking out of a game she was winning and there was nothing to it.”
Kit lay motionless on the poncho on the floor, but Alex knew she listened whenever her name was mentioned. Alex rolled to the edge of her cot and stroked the dog’s back.
“How many were there?”
“Oh, I don’t know. It was dark and there was a lot of movement. Not counting Kit’s, I’d guess there were at least four pair of eyes.”
The sound of footsteps passing behind their tent alerted them to Heather’s arrival. Dropping her voice, Alex said, “Todd was more rattled by the coyotes than Kit was.”
Rennie sighed. “Right now I find Todd’s reaction to be far more reasonable than a certain other person’s tendency to dismiss warning signs simply because he thinks they sound weird.”
Weird. The word reminded Alex of the debate she’d been having with herself over whether she should tell Rennie about what had happened with Tony. So far, she had found it difficult to talk about at all, maybe because she didn’t understand it herself. Besides, she didn’t want to burden Rennie with yet another set of unsettling circumstances. Worry over Hoskers and frustration with Hanks were enough for her to wrestle with.
Others beside Hector had expressed their appreciation for how Alex had stood up to Tony. Marina said that, while she had not understood everything that had been said, someone needed to tell off that snake Tony Balbo.
Alex hadn’t replied to that. She didn’t feel she had succeeded in telling Tony anything—not anything that changed his thinking. Bristling with triumph, he had been the one to break off the conversation.
His point that she had revealed herself to him—what was that supposed to mean? What had she done? Once more, she replayed the incident in her head. The outstretched hand, the glare—no, the flash—of some insight, something he had recognized but that she herself was unaware of. Had she seen right? Was there admiration or even a twisted intimacy in his deep eye contact? She shuddered. A voice in her head told her that she had somehow put herself at risk.
Then she realized something that made her resent Tony all the more. He had aroused old feelings in her she thought she had left behind when she joined the church—feelings of suspicion and of doubt, of slyness and of cunning … of enmity! She was maneuvering with Tony like she had done with others in the old days. She thought she had laid those shreds of her old life on the altar—shards of her doubtful heart, broken bones of her willful spirit. Supposedly, the whole works had gone up in smoke. Now here it was, alive and dancing in her soul, aroused just like that—by the presence of a single person.
She felt a wave of misery. For three years she had gotten along on the belief that she had taken care of all old business relevant to conforming to her new life in the church. It had been a vast relief—the process of repenting and starting anew. She thought she had come home. But the dark clouds now swirling in her mind felt far more familiar than the picture she had painted for herself of a safe and neat spiritual home, a place where she could forget the past and be somebody other than who she had been.
Alex turned over on her cot. Why here, in such an idyllic setting? Why did this person have to arrive and spoil it all? What was she going to do about the strange and—she knew it well enough—dangerous connection forming between them? Should she ignore him from here on out, suppress her nearly instinctual drive to stand up to him, and just let him go about his business? Should she back away from the mystery enveloping them both, linking them in some eerie cosmic dance?
She groaned in frustration. As much as she wanted to do the right thing and be a good person, she knew she couldn’t back away. The genie was out of the bottle. She had to accept that and not waste time denying herself or the manipulative stranger trying to gain the upper hand in the game between them, whatever that game was.
“Something wrong?” Rennie asked.
Should she confide in Rennie or not? Alex teetered on the thin edge of die question, then came down hard on the don’t tell side. “No, nothing. Just … wondering what’s ahead.”
Rennie scoffed. “Join the club!”
Questions kept Alex awake for a long time. When she finally did fall asleep, she dreamed that a crowd was accusing her of having done something terribly, horribly wrong. In the dream, she tended to agree with them, although she couldn’t figure out what it was she had done or why everyone condemned her.
* * * * *
Alex did not have to wait long to hear answers to some of her questions. The next day—another in a series marked by heat and glare—brought with it more frustration as the archaeologists began losing the battle to catch up on their schedule. Believing he could elicit more from his crew chiefs and students. Hanks rode everybody hard. Anxiety bloomed over the site like a drought-resistant summer weed.
Raff arrived to announce that the San Juan County Sheriff’s Department had launched an official missing persons search for Harry Hoskers, then left again. The emergency was far too young for anyone to entertain truly unpleasant thoughts, but vague imaginings lurked in everyone’s mind.
On her way to the latrine, Alex glanced at the goat skull sitting on the backdirt pile. The big rainstorm of nearly a week ago had undermined it so that the skull had begun slipping down the side of the backdirt pile. The ominous black feather hung from its eye socket by a mere spider’s web. It was only a matter of time before a dust devil or canyon breeze whisked it away. When that happened, the skull would look like just another bit of desert detritus.
She shook her head, realizing as she did that she felt the beginnings of a headache. She put her fingers to her temples and rubbed. Like an engine revving, the pain grew. She returned to excavating but within an hour felt quite ill.”Rennie, I’ve got to lie down before I throw up,” she said.
“What’s wrong?” Rennie asked.
“Headache,” Alex said, gritting her teeth. “Migraine.”
“Need a ride to camp?”
“No, I can make it—I’ll take the wash. It’s only a fifteen-, twenty-minute walk, and that’s about how much time I have before it gets really bad. I’ll keep to the shade. I’ll try to come back later.”
Rennie nodded. “Take all the time you need.”
Alex dropped her trowel into the equipment box, took a big drink of water, and walked off the site. When she arrived at the wash, she lay down in the shade until the nausea passed. Then she hiked the wash unsteadily, arriving at her tent, which had only just begun to slip into the cottonwood’s shade. Its interior was still hot as blazes, but Alex unzipped the front flap and staggered through, collapsing onto her cot.
No sooner did she lie down than she was struck by the impression that something was wrong. She lifted her head and looked around. Everything seemed in place. She could see no obvious signs of disturbance, yet the impression was strong. Was it a scent or the lingering trace of something else unpleasant or just the migraine playing tricks on her mind?
The pain overwhelmed her. Closing her eyes, she saw strange lights. She sank down, too exhausted to think about the warning impression any more. Remembering she kept painkillers on hand for situations like this one, she sat up to take them, shakily unzipping the back tent flap and two side ones, hoping for a breeze. Then she lay back down and fell into something that vaguely resembled sleep.
Voices woke her some time later. As her attention focused, she realized they were coming from Heather’s tent. Alex tried to ignore them but then recognized Tony Balbo’s polished tones. Without making a sound, she rolled over and peeked out the open back tent flap.
Tony carried a cooler out of Heather’s tent while Heather set up two lawn chairs. He flipped the cooler’s lid up and took out a couple of beers, opening one and handing it to Heather. He opened the other for himself. They both settled into the chairs and began drinking.
Alex had seen enough to lose interest. In accordance with the school’s standards, the archaeology department was supposed to run a dry camp, but everyone knew there were infractions, especially among volunteers or others not directly tied to the school. Neither Tony nor Heather was enrolled, although the university was surely paying Heather’s salary. While Alex thought the indulgence showed contempt for camp rules, she wasn’t surprised and really didn’t care. She lay back down, the throbbing in her head demanding far more attention than Tony’s and Heather’s drinking habits.
In spite of her uneasiness with Tony’s nearness, Alex felt safe as long he didn’t know she was in her tent. She listened to Tony pump Heather for information. She told him work on the site had fallen way behind schedule. He asked what areas of the site were being worked. Heather told him and then divulged information that Alex didn’t know. Taylor was opening a meter-wide test trench bisecting the worst part of the pot-hunting damage in the middens. As Tony questioned Heather about the test trench, Alex closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep. Then another voice roused her. It was Todd’s. Curiosity overcame discomfort. Quietly, she rolled over and looked out the window.
She saw Tony reach into the cooler, pull out a beer, pop the top, and offer it to Todd. The thirteen-year-old Navajo considered a moment, accepted the can, and drank. Tony stood and offered Todd his chair, sitting down in the dirt at his feet. Heather watched with her usual blank stare.
Alex forgot her headache as she watched Tony ply Todd with charm. He chatted Todd up about nonspecific aspects of camp life. Then he began speaking in confidential tones about the difficulties of dealing with the up-tight whites in the camp.
Todd tried to sidestep the topic. “It’s not so bad,” he said. “I don’t mind.” Then he laughed. “Sometimes, it’s very interesting.”
Tony chuckled, too. “No doubt it is,” he said. Catching Todd completely off guard, he said, “Speaking of interesting, I heard you had an interesting experience.”
Todd froze. Assuming a mask, he looked at Tony as if from a distance. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“Last night in the wash.” Tony looked away as if the business were no big deal. Alex understood the ploy. Todd could take up the subject or leave it, whichever he chose.
She hoped Todd would leave it, but he stepped right into the snare.
“What do you mean?” he repeated.
“You know—the coyotes.” Tony fell silent, letting another pause do his work for him.
Todd shifted nervously. He forced a chuckle, crossed or leg over the other, ankle to knee, and gripped the arms of h chair. “Yeah,” he said, chuckling again. “That was …”
“Spooky,” Tony suggested for him.
Todd didn’t reply. Alex wondered why he didn’t just leave like he did when he became uncomfortable around her. She watched in surprise as the young Navajo drained his beer. He set the can down on the arm of the chair and got up.
“Another?” Tony asked.
“No, thanks,” Todd replied. “I better get going.”
As Todd took a couple steps toward the mess, Tony threw out another hook. “It must have been pretty unnerving. With coyotes, you never know what will happen.”
“Yeah,” Todd said, taking a few more steps.
“The woman with you—what did she do?”
Todd stopped and faced Tony. Although he didn’t answer the question, he seemed interested in what Tony would say next.
“Alexandra—Alex. Did the coyotes bother her?”
“What do you mean?” Todd asked.
Alex’s neck and shoulder began to cramp. She eased h self back onto her cot and lay there, her whole body prickling with tension.
“You had a bit of a scare when you saw Ma’i, didn’t you?” Tony said, using the Navajo name for the folk character Coyote. “But Alex—she wasn’t scared, was she?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Todd replied.
“Come on, Todd. She wasn’t scared.” Tony let this assertion stand between them for a moment. “She wasn’t scared, Todd,” he insisted.
Silence. Alex’s heart pounded in her head. What was begetting at?
“Do you know why she wasn’t scared?”
“Maybe she was,” Todd replied, forcing lightness into his voice.
“Do you know why she wasn’t scared, Todd?” Tony repeated.
“Because she has strong blood. You know what I mean, don’t you?”
Todd didn’t reply, so Tony elaborated. “She’s a witch.”
Todd laughed nervously.
“She is,” Tony asserted in a matter-of-fact tone. “I tell you because I know you can appreciate what I’m saying.”
Silence. Then, “What makes you say a crazy thing like that?”
“It isn’t crazy. That’s something I’d expect a white boy to say. You’ve been brought up to know better.”
“Of course.” Again, one of Tony’s engineered silences fell. “She’s a born witch,” he said at last. “She came into the world with powers. Isn’t it amazing? A bit alarming, too, I would suppose.”
Under her breath, Alex whispered, “You’ve got to be kidding!”
“Listen, I gotta go help with supper,” Todd said, his voice flat. “You’re nuts.” There were sounds of footsteps as Todd left, breaking into a trot.
“Her dog, too!” Tony called after him. “The coyotes didn’t kill the dog because it’s a witch’s beast. The dog’s got powers too!”
The footsteps faded as Todd retreated from Tony’s assault. Alex heard Tony chuckle—almost giggle.
“Why did you do that?” Heather asked, her question shot through with hesitation.
“Why not do it? It’s the truth,” Tony said, tossing off her reproach with disdain.
“But they were friends … ”
“Women like that have no friends.”
“But … ”
“Shut up, Heather. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Alex heard the threat of rejection in his voice. Sure enough, he said, “Sometimes I wonder why I spend my time with you. I don’t know if I even like you.”
Heather fell silent.
“Still, there must be something about you I find satisfying.”
No response from Heather.
“Have another beer,” Tony said. Sounds of a cooler opening, ice raiding, and a pop top tearing off. “Tell me more about this test trench they’re planning.”
Tony and Heather sat on the other side of the cottonwood for another twenty minutes. If Alex hadn’t heard Tony’s abuse just moments before or the bizarre interchange he’d had with Todd, their conversation would have sounded like any casual chat about the site’s archaeology. At last, Alex heard them put away their chairs and cooler and walk toward the mess area.
Alex lay stunned. She wondered if Tony knew she was in the tent and had staged the entire scene for her benefit, as she suspected he had the other night at the fire. But no—he hadn’t known, couldn’t have known. His treatment of Heather assured her of that. Abusive men did not invite witnesses to their private parties. She knew something about how that went.
Thoughts and feelings rolled, fragmented, and flashed. Confusion and anger slid into and out of each other, creating disturbing mixtures, each breaking away as new arrangements of mental struggle broke through. She sat up and tried to get a grip on herself. “He thinks I’m a witch!” she exclaimed softly. “So that’s what all that was about the other night!”
Suddenly, Alex was glad she had parried his thrust at her, knocked his hand aside before he had been able to touch her. She had touched him in the course of pushing him away, but if she had allowed him to touch her, he would have assumed that she was inviting him into her soul. It was a common theme in folklore: the devil couldn’t cross your threshold unless you asked him in.
She felt her head. The pain was gone but she still felt weak and shaky. What should she do now? Obviously, revealing her knowledge of Tony’s attempt at provocateuring would be a bad idea. In fact, she couldn’t let him find out that she had been in camp at all. She pulled out a water bottle from beneath her cot and took a long drink of warm water. She had to get away before Kit found her or anything happened to betray her presence.
She stuck her head through the tent door and looked around. Nobody in sight. She stepped out and zipped the tent shut as quietly as possible. Then, slipping through the grease-wood, she made for the wash. Her plan was to go back to work and then return to camp with everyone else. That way everything would appear normal. Hearing pans clatter in the kitchen, Alex was grateful for once for Wiggins’s blundering ways. The commotion provided cover for her escape.
She dropped down into the wash, stopped, looked over her shoulder, and was startled to see Todd standing on the bank, watching. The two of them gazed at each other for several seconds. Alex considered talking to him about what had happened. Todd regarded her silently, standing motionless in a grove of sapling cottonwoods, neither inviting nor discouraging a response. Finally, she decided against saying anything at all and walked off down the wash, giving Todd the freedom to make of her behavior what he would.
Busy with notes, Rennie acknowledged Alex’s return to the site with a glance. However, Hector welcomed her warmly.
“Where did you go?” he asked. “We missed you.”
Alex heard real affection in his voice and felt grateful for his sincerity. After what she had just experienced, she had begun to wonder if there were any sincere people left in the world.
“Well thanks,” she said, patting him on the shoulder. “Had to go find some shade. I wasn’t feeling well.”
“Oh. Are you better now?”
“I am,” she said. “It cleared things up in ways I hadn’t expected.”
Hector glanced at the sky. Overhead it was an unbroken blue, but in the distance a pillow of white moisture plumped itself above the Abajos. “I think I see a storm brewing up there,” he said.
Alex looked toward the mountains. “I think so,” she said. “Maybe it will condescend our way.”
“We could use a little condensation,” Hector joked. “Alex, I don’t suppose you know a spell that would give those clouds a nudge in our direction?”
Alex stood stunned for the second time that day. After a moment of confusion, she realized Hector’s question was a joke, but combined with the still glowing effects of Tony’s assertions that she was a witch, it disturbed her.
“What do you mean?” she asked, realizing as she said it that she sounded just like Todd had when Tony had cornered him.
“I just thought you may have run across some weather magic in your study of folklore and your attention to witchcraft,” Hector said.
She studied his face for a moment and noted the slight turn at the corners of his mouth. He was trying to play with her in a harmless way, not at all like Tony’s manipulations. She managed a strained smile. Closing her eyes and wiggling her fingers in the air, she chanted, “Partly to mostly cloudy with a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms.” She opened her eyes. “How’s that?”
Hector chuckled. “Couldn’t ask for more,” he said. Alex relaxed a little. She was beginning to enjoy Hector, especially the funny little personality changes she saw him making day by day. But his innocent question had helped her decide what to do. She would leave the field school to go look for some answers—and maybe for a few good questions, too.
Raff showed up again that evening to report that no one had found a trace of Harry Hoskers. Dr. Hanks received the news solemnly. “I’m sure he just went on one of his side trips,” he posed.
This suggestion was met by silence.
“I keep coming back to what old Redhorse said that day he showed up at the site,” Raff said.
“Redhorse came to the site? What for?” Hanks asked.
“That’s right, you weren’t here,” Raff said. “At the risk of offending the dead Ancient Ones, he made a special trip over, said we had witch trouble.”
Hanks threw up his hands. “How come nobody told me this?”
“I guess we forgot,” Danny said.
“That’s it then,” Hanks said. “Something’s happened and Redhorse knows what.” He turned to Raff. “You have to go talk to him—find out more.”
Raff shook his head. “He already said all he’s gonna. If I go over and bother him, it’ll only make him regret bringing it up.”
“What a disaster!” Hanks growled. “That man has been nothing but trouble from the day I met him.”
“Are you talking about Hoskers or Redhorse?” Taylor asked.
“Hoskers, of course!” Hanks snapped.
Everyone fell silent.
“Well,” Raff said, breaking the gloomy silence. “I gotta get my sorry self back to Blanding. I’ll let you know if anything else turns up.”
Alex stood. Her car was still at Raff’s house where she had left it after the storm. Now she wanted it back. She could wait till tomorrow afternoon—laundry day. But she thought she might break loose before that, maybe as early as tomorrow morning.
“Can I catch a ride?” she asked. “I need to pick up my car.”
“Oh, yeah,” Raff said. “I’ve been meaning to get your keys and have my wife drive it out, but with all that’s happened … ”
“Why don’t you just wait till tomorrow when we go in for laundry?” Taylor asked.
“I just want it back now,” Alex replied evasively.
“Fine with me,” Raff said. “But you’ll have to drive back over the reservation in the dark, you know.”
“I know,” Alex said.
“Alone,” he teased.
“Let’s go then,” he said.
Alex ran out to her tent to fetch her car keys. Sensing something was up, Kit ran after, keeping a close eye on her. When Alex returned to the mess area, she asked Raff if Kit could ride along.
“No problem. You might need her on the way back to help ward off the skinwalkers. Some of them can run as fast as cars, you know.”
“So I’ve heard,” Alex said irritably.
The ride into town would have been pleasant if Alex had not been consumed with her own problems. She petted Kit absentmindedly as the dog rode between her knees. Finally she said, “Things don’t look too good for the project.”
Raff drove a while before he answered. “No, they don’t. I shoulda known.” They rode in silence the rest of the way into town.
Alex declined Amy’s invitation to visit, thanked Raff for the ride, and jumped into her old wagon. She didn’t relish having to drive back to camp in the dark over those lonely reservation roads and wanted to get it over with.
As she drove, she watched for animals. The whole reservation was open range and cattle and horses frequently lounged on or at the edge of the asphalt. Also, she wanted to avoid hitting other desert dwellers like jackrabbits and coyotes.
Only a few miles of reservation remained when Alex caught sight of a heap lying in the road. She braked and swerved, fighting to keep control of her car. She ran off the pavement and clipped the car’s right fender through the sagebrush. Kit was thrown to the floor. The car came to rest with a cloud of dust swirling past the headlights.
Kit jumped back into her seat and threw Alex a look. “Ooawoo-awoo!” she yodeled in complaint.
Alex sat still, waiting for her heart to stop pounding. She looked in her rearview mirror but only saw empty road. She wound down the window and peered out and could just make out the bundle lying a short distance back.
“Sorry about that,” she said to Kit. “So what do you think? Should we go back and see what that was or drive like blazes out of here because we don’t want to know?”
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes,'” she said. “But yes, what?”
She put the car into gear and turned the wagon around. “Inquiring minds want to know,” she said.
She cruised back along the road until the form on the asphalt took shape in her headlights. She studied it from a distance until the jumble made sense.
“It’s a body!” she exclaimed. She edged the car closer. The body didn’t move. She flipped open her glove box, pulled out a flashlight, and got out of the car. So far nothing from the heap lying on the road.
“You stay here,” she said to Kit, who was sticking her head out the window. “If something bad happens, go for help.”
Kit growled, then yipped.
“Fine,” Alex answered. “It’ll be your own fault then if you end up in a skinwalker Navajo taco.”
Cautiously, Alex approached the heap. Except for ubiquitous cricket-song, the night was still. When she got within six feet of the body, a soft, wheezing sound reached her ears. Snoring! Someone was sleeping in the middle of the road! Thinking how near she had come to extending the person’s nap forever, Alex strode forward angrily. “Hey there. Hey!” Shining her light over the body, she made out the booted, jeaned, and jacketed form of a Navajo man. She rocked him with her foot.
“Wake up! You’re in the middle of the road!”
The snoring shattered and grumbling took its place. Alex shined her light into the man’s face and he held up his hand to ward off the beam.
“Get out of the road!”
He pulled his jacket collar up and turned away.
“GET UP!” she yelled. “Go sleep over there!” With the flashlight’s beam, she indicated a patch of sand off to the side of the road.
The man glared. Getting to his knees, he picked up the old cowboy hat he’d been using as a pillow and staggered off the road.
“He’s drunk,” Alex said under her breath, watching the man move unsteadily across the pavement. “Time to leave.”
She trotted back to the car and got in, wasting no time pointing it in the direction of camp. When she had put a couple miles between herself and the sleeper, Alex remembered something a Navajo student at the Y had told her about the reservation having a high rate of hit-and-run accidents. “Some people believe it’s because of the reservation’s high rate of alcoholism—you know, a lot a drunken driving—but really, it’s skinwalkers,” he said. Alex had raised her eyebrows. “Really, it’s true,” he had insisted. “People come across skinwalkers in the roads at night and go out of their way to hit them—get rid of them.” But given the events of the last ten hours, Alex hoped she hadn’t just seen Todd’s future lying back there on the asphalt.
She drove into camp and was greeted by Rennie, Danny, and Taylor. “How was your trip?” Rennie asked. “Fine,” she said. “Except I nearly got me one of them skinwalkers.”
The three chiefs looked at her in surprise.
“Or was it a sleepwalker?” she wondered.