The wind sang at the edge of the canyon, weaving along the fence and making the barbed wire rock in the moonlight. The full moon was high, and the night whistled with the sounds of night birds and the distant yawping howls of the coyotes. Picking her way along the property line, carrying a shotgun low with the barrel pointed down, Tamara Whitefeather made no attempt to conceal herself from view. The things she was trying to find were as adept at stalking as she was, and twice as deadly. Her hair, normally unbound and hanging free around her face, was tied back tonight, braided and then curled into a bun. The night would throw enough phantoms her way. She didn't need her hair curling and whipping and startling her unnecessarily.
The young native american Redeemer looked up for a moment, her face gleaming silver in the light of the moon. Maybe it was something about the stars that brought the skinchangers out. Her brown eyes flicked down and away first, then she turned her attention back to the land around her. It wasn't her land and it had never been her people's land. It had belonged to one tribe, then the other, but the Sioux had never claimed it. That was why the Sioux's monsters didn't roam here. Instead, the Navajo's skinwalkers and darker things, brought with the Europeans, hunted along these ridges. Her talk with the Navajo elders had taught her very little, aside from settling her with the knowledge that Great Elk and Standing Wolf's strength would help her in defending her family and her home. The shotgun was supplementary. Skinwalkers were defeated by cunning and good magic, and only rarely by bullets.
She thumbed the safety off of the shotgun, bringing the stock closer to her shoulder. She rested the recoil pad against her body and placed her finger near the trigger. The coyote howls were further off now, but the hair on the back of her neck was starting to stand up. She inhaled and exhaled slowly, turning her body so she was standing with her back towards the little farmhouse. She resisted the urge to glance that way, to make sure the windows were still closed and shuttered. Her children were sleeping in her bed tonight, safer there than in their own rooms. Her husband was down in the canyon. His protection was a gamble, but she'd learned that the skinwalkers didn't normally attack large groups of people. The horseback camping group would hopefully be enough of a deterrent.
She called on the vision of her ancestors, her heart thumping in anticipation of seeing things revealed much too close or not close enough. Those were the worst surprises, and she breathed a slow sigh of relief when nothing made itself immediately known. She continued her walk, moving slowly along her fence. She could still feel it, somewhere out in the dark. Now she was all too aware of the edge of the light, the pool of the house's security lights ending ten feet, then eight feet, then five feet away from her. Beyond, the rest of the paddock and what now looked like the darkest part of the night. She peered out past the rim of the lights, trying to see into that pitch. This was wishful thinking at best, an attempt to delay having to step beyond the imaginary protection of that circle of illumination. With another long draw of breath, Tamara steeled herself and walked on.
She stayed close to the fence. It was her marker and her guide. She'd already decided that she wouldn't fire on anything outside of that border. She was walking the paddock only to protect what was hers. To make the line absolutely clear. They could have the canyon. Her property was off limits. The light at her back snapped off, as she was well out of range of the motion sensors. She paused, mid step and mid thought, acclimating to the semi-darkness. If there was one small thing to be thankful for, it was that while the nights here were dark, the city's lights surrounding the canyon kept them from being too black. Back home in the Dakotas, this would be quite a different experience.
She walked further, under the stars and the moon. The feeling remained, of someone or something watching her, but there were no other signs. The smell the Navajo elders had described didn't drift to her. There were no animal eyes in the underbrush. The nightbirds and the bats took no notice of anything unnatural, though one of the insect-hunters came perilously close to her head. She kept her grip on the shotgun nevertheless. Witches and bloodsuckers had wielded powers at her that she'd never seen mentioned in books or on the internet. As much as she might want to believe the Navajo, they, like everyone else, were probably at least a little misinformed.
The lights clicked on, the sound of their activation carrying with loud snap across the open paddock.
Tamara turned, raising the gun as she did, her finger still laying aside of the trigger. She fell into a shooting stance naturally, sighting down the barrel onto a figure silhouetted by the spotlights from the house. What she saw was not what she expected, though if asked she couldn't have described the thing she anticipated. What stood at the edge of the range of the lights was a human shape. The curve of the waist indicated that it was female, wearing some sort of holster at her hip. Facing into the light, the figure's features were indistinct. That was probably the thing's plan. Despite the contrived halo it had arranged for itself, the ancestor's gift of vision made it clear that the thing was not human. She advanced towards it slowly, keeping the gun level and snug against her shoulder.
"Who are you?" The voice was not at all what Tamara had expected, the question even less so. It was coldly feminine, with a hint of an East Coast accent and a tone of authority to it. She raised the gun slightly, sighting on the figure's chest.
"This is my property," Tamara replied, licking her lips nervously. She forced herself to breathe, to slow her heart rate. "You're intruding."
The figure shifted its stance. If she hadn't been watching for it, she wouldn't have noticed the way the legs moved from a flexed position to a more relaxed pose. The hand of the figure rested on the holster. The change suggested a contradiction to Tamara, that in fact, the figure was more comfortable with the property than the Redeemer was. "Are you the one who's been shooting at wolves?"
Sweat beaded on Tamara's forehead, suddenly cold. The figure was between her and the house, and the run was uphill. If this was a skinwalker, it had cut her off from her route back to safety, more ammunition and her children. She hadn't even heard the thing move before the light came on. Should she admit the truth? Would the creature even know that she'd been shooting at the coyotes and the wolves with the BB gun, and not a rifle or shotgun? She forced herself to continue breathing, her finger drifting by millimeters to the trigger. Swallowing hard, trying to control her fear, she gave a slow nod. "With pellets. To keep them away from the horses," she answered, her mouth dry. Somehow, she sounded more confident than she felt. Tension whipped along her spine at every single move the creature made.
The figure's head canted slightly to the side. "Strange choice for a rancher," the figure replied in that smooth diction. It revealed nothing. Very little emotion was even hinted at by the voice, just that vague touch of an accent. "I thought animals that attack stock are killed."
Tamara licked her lips again. She advanced a few steps. When the figure made no indication that it would back away or move at all, she came to a stop again. "They haven't attacked the animals yet. I don't want to kill them unless it's necessary," she responded.
The figure's hand drifted from the holster and its posture adjusted. It seemed to have crossed its arms. "Is that the only reason you're shooting at them? To protect your animals?" These questions were laden with second meanings and deeper inquiries. Tamara could hear that undertone loud and clear. "Or," the figure tipped its head the other direction, "to ask a more pertinent question, is there a reason that you shoot pellets at them most nights, but tonight you have a shotgun and sweetgrass?"
Tamara shifted her grip on the gun as her palms began to sweat. The sweetgrass cord was coiled deep in her pocket. The creature's sense of smell must be incredible, to find it there underneath every other scent on her, or else it had some sort of sense for holy objects. She could see now that the figure's hair was blonde, as her eyes adjusted to the light. That didn't seem right at all. The Navajo's legends weren't too specific, but she thought the elders may have told her if the skinwalkers had been sharing their witchcraft with the Europeans. "I was looking for you," she answered, her breath catching in her throat when the figure's arms uncrossed to hang loose at its sides. It didn't turn. She didn't take her finger off of the trigger. "And your people. I wanted to protect myself in case you tried your witchcraft."
The Redeemer prepared to fire, her legs starting to tire from the tension of remaining ready to sprint for the figure. Despite the boldness of her statement, the figure remained as it was, watching her in utter stillness. She ran through prayer after prayer in her mind, begging White Buffalo Woman, Iktomi, her ancestors and any god she thought might help to protect her and her family if the figure decided to attack. Instead it exhaled, the sound half growl, half mottled curse words. "You...you..." it muttered, sounding more exasperated than enraged. "Stop looking for us. Stop tracking us. Stop shooting at the wolves and the coyotes. If you stop," and now the figure stepped forward, out of the ring of light, cloaking herself in darkness again, "we won't have to start."
It was as though the figure opened a bottle of scent. Where there had been little sense of menace before, the figure's closeness heralded a frightening unease. It was that feeling of being watched again, though the creature doing the watching was an unconsciously known quantity. Tamara's back prickled, and she imagined slashing claws from the darkness. The figure had appeared soundlessly, invisibly, from nowhere. She could see, all too well, how badly things could turn if the figure in front of her returned, or brought friends next time. Her family was at stake. "I...yes," she answered, swallowing, trying to bring some moisture back to her parched throat.
The figure regarded her, letting the silence settle with dreadful calm. "I do not know where to find the others like you," it said, after giving Tamara several more intensely contemplative seconds. She nearly twitched. "But I know where to find you. If I need to ask any questions about people like you who think they're clever, or who think they're strong, or who think they're bold, I will ask you. I would suggest you discourage those who think these things, because if harm comes to my family, I will be sharing that harm with yours. I hope I've been clear." The figure drew something small from her pocket. light from the spotlights glimmered off of it, reflecting onto the ground and every which way from there. "Goodnight."
There was a flash of light across a pale face, and a suggestion of intense blue eyes framed by blonde hair. Then the figure was gone, simply vanished into nothing. Tamara fumbled with the safety, her breath coming in great heaving gulps as she flipped the switch, then unloaded the weapon. Fear shot through her, and she slung the gun over her shoulder. Now she ran, her muscles aching plaintively as she dashed for the house. The hill seemed steeper than normal, the door set farther back along the porch. The Redeemer fairly slammed the gun onto the rack inside, fumbled with the lock on the foor as she was shucking off her jean jacket and kicking away her boots. The terror demanded one answer above all of the others, and she sprinted to her bedroom as fast as she could move.
Though cliche would demand that she hesitate at the door, unwilling to see if the creature had beaten her to her destination, she did no such thing, barging directly into the small room. The slam of the door against the wall brought one of the two little heads straight up off of their pillows. Looking into the wide, startled eyes of her son sent the fear washing away. Now the trembles of her exertion came back as she struggled with a smile and shut the door. The path from there to the bed was a blur, until the boy was snuggled up to her chest, and her daughter's hand was curled around her fingertips. The gun, the confrontation, it could all be dealt with in the morning. For the moment, she forced herself to forget, to find the peace of her home and her children. For the moment, it worked.