I poked him in the side and gestured at Bird and Maximus and tried to walk in that direction. His arm held me in place, then relented and off we went. We didn’t say anything to each other and as we neared the horse barn, he took his arm off me. I felt both vulnerable and free.
We followed the tall frames of Bird and Maximus into the barn. The happy smell of horses and hay contrasted with the musty darkness. We walked down a row of empty stalls, the doors covered with heavy cobwebs, the interiors looking strangely damp.
One stall had a lone, lit bulb that was swinging subtly back and forth, casting an eerie moving glow on the cruddy walls. I poked my head through the stall, expecting to see an impatient horse inside. There was nothing.
But something in the shadows caught my eye. It was like the shadows were moving. Was it a trick of the light? My eyes? I tried to focus until I picked out a shape.
I saw a pair of yellow eyes, low to the ground. I would have screamed at the sight, or moved, or something, but all I could do was stand there and stare. I felt like I couldn’t look away even if I wanted.
Then they slowly faded into the blackness. It was like they were never there to begin with. With them gone, I felt the weird trance-like sensation leaving my body. I took my head out of the stall and looked down the dark corridor at the three guys. I saw Dex looking in my direction but I couldn’t see his expression.
“Shan?!” Bird called out, his voice echoing against the wood walls. No response. Bird walked further on and said it again.
“Hello,” a raspy voice whispered beside me. I jumped at the sound and jumped again when I saw a man standing in the stall where I was just looking. I almost screamed, in fact I thought I had screamed, but it was caught in my throat and expanded there silently.
The man was only a foot away from me, but again I had trouble focusing on him, as if he was buried in the shadows. His face was blank, devoid of expression, and at times seemed featureless.
But that was ridiculous. He had features. He had a flat nose, a pointy chin, scraggly hairs that made up a beard, black, low brows and high cheekbones. He was maybe 50 years old. He was also native, Navajo I was guessing, with dark reddish skin. I could see these things clearly, when I made myself. But it took effort. When I relaxed my eyes, it was like his features went back to mask-like putty. It was the strangest thing ever.
No stranger though, than his eyes. They weren’t mean like Miguel’s had been but they were hypnotizing. Shades of green, amber and streaks of vibrant yellow made their way to a pinpoint pupil. Maybe these were the eyes I had just seen in the stall. Even though that was impossible.
“Shan,” Bird boomed out. I jumped again. Bird, Maximus and Dex were right beside me. Bird was smiling at Shan pleasantly, but Dex and Maximus were staring at me, wild-eyed.
“Are you OK?” Maximus asked me skeptically.
I nodded with some effort. Then realized why they were staring at me so strangely. I looked down. My hands were up around my throat, as if I was choking myself. I delicately removed them, each finger coming off the grooves on my cold neck, my heart pounding in my chest. I was scared shitless. What the fuck was I just doing?
Bird smiled uneasily at me. “Have you got a sore throat?”
I cleared my throat, afraid I was unable to speak, but a meek, “That must be it” came out from my lips. I looked at Dex. He didn’t look as concerned as the others did, he just looked full on mistrustful of me, as if I had the plague or something.
“Well, we’ve got a lot of teas that will fix you up in a second. Isn’t that right, Shan?” Bird asked.
Shan slid the door open and stepped out into the hall. He nodded and smiled at me. In the light (and reality) he looked like your normal rancher. Lean, relaxed, weather-beaten. His eyes were still peculiar and vivid enough though, that I found myself avoiding them.
“We sure do,” Shan spoke with a gregarious, lightly accented voice. “The Navajo have the real medicine. Don’t trust any of that cheap garbage that Will might give you. He’s lost the way.”
“Yeah, he got married.” Bird laughed and Shan joined him. I didn’t feel like laughing yet. In fact, I just wanted to get out of that barn and into the light. I smiled quickly at them. “I’m sure I’ll be fine. It was nice to meet you Shan. I need some fresh air. I think I’m…allergic to hay.”
I coughed a little for effect, turned on my heel and quickly walked out of the barn. I heard Dex mutter something and Shan and Bird laughing along with him. I didn’t care.
Outside, the air was filled with swirling dust and wasn’t exactly fresh but it was dry and the intense sunlight and overexposed landscape immediately made me feel better.
I heard footsteps shuffling towards me from behind. I turned around thinking I’d see Dex but it was Maximus kicking up the dust. He looked down at me, squinting in the light, and put one meaty hand on my shoulder.
“What happened in there?” he drawled.
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe I really am allergic to hay.”
He squeezed my shoulder. It felt nice. “No. I mean, why were you choking yourself? You picked the wrong place to try and get high.”
I may have smiled. He had the same humor as Dex. And apparently way more concern.
“I don’t know. I didn’t know I was doing that. I was just looking in the stall, I thought I saw something in there-”
I wasn’t about to tell him, then I realized he of all people might understand.
“I thought I saw a pair of eyes. Like, low to the ground.”
He took his hand off of my shoulder and ran it through his shlock of fiery hair and gazed off into the distance.
“What color were they?”
“Yellow,” I said hesitantly. “Then they disappeared, then this Shan guy popped up and then apparently I was choking myself. You know as much as I do.”
He mulled that over. He seemed to be holding something back from me and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to find out what it was.
“Well,” he said slowly. “Strange things happen here, you can bet your mother.”
“And that’s why we’re here,” I said.
He smiled warily. He really was quite a handsome guy.
“Just…be careful while you’re here. Especially when I’m not here.”
I frowned. “What do you mean by that?”
He shrugged, dust flying off his plaid-clad shoulders. “You’re just going to want someone capable on your side in this crazy land. If you have any doubts, just talk to Bird. I trust him.”
“I trust Dex,” I said stubbornly.
He scratched at his sideburn and looked wistful, “I know you do. I reckon that might be a problem.”
How was that a problem? I opened my mouth to say something in his defense when Bird and Dex came out of the barn.
“There you are,” said Bird. “I was afraid you wandered off somewhere.”
Bird peered at me. On the surface he played the concerned grandfather type but deep in his eyes I sensed an even deeper worry. Sometimes I saw that same thing in my mother’s eyes.
Well, no, not after what Maximus had just told me but I said yes anyway.
Dex was eyeing us suspiciously. He probably knew we were just talking about him. I glanced between the two ex-friends and knew that a phantom choking incident and a volatile rancher were going to be the least of my problems. Something obviously happened between these two guys and the past wasn’t having an easy time being buried. I had a feeling I’d find out by the time the weekend was over, and it wasn’t going to come from Dex’s mouth.
Bird sensed something too. Or he had good timing.
“So, what say we introduce you to Lancasters and get the ball rolling?”
We agreed and walked back to the house. Bird stayed a few feet ahead; I had the boys on either side of me.
“Hey, just remember,” Maximus whispered to us and pointed at his ring finger.
Right, the married thing. Though Sarah was blind, she’d still probably see right through us.
“Play it cool,” he continued. “And don’t take anything she says personally.”
We walked up on to the porch and waited while Bird knocked a few times and waited with baited breath for this mysterious Sarah woman. The door opened and revealed a tiny, tawny-skinned woman in her mid-life, with sunglasses and a cane. She was wearing a very pretty green floral dress that complimented her black, bunned hair. I might have been expecting her to look like a witch.
“Sarah, m’am. I thought you were napping. Where’s Will?” Bird asked apologetically.
She snorted. “How can I nap when I know strangers are snooping around my ranch.”
She looked at us…well, at least in our direction. It felt accusatory.
“Sarah, these are strangers no more. You know Maximus-”
“Unfortunately,” she sniped.
“And the other two people here are Dex and Perry Foray. They’ve come on behalf of your husband.”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass why they are here,” she muttered contemptuously, still looking straight at us. “My husband should know better.”
Bird cleared his throat. “Well, they’ve come an awful long way to come meet with Will…”
She dismissed us with a faint wave of her hand. “I don’t care. Send them back.”
I know Maximus had just said to not take it personally but it was too late. I felt extremely uncomfortable. What if we came here for nothing?
“Mrs. Lancaster, please,” Dex spoke up. “My wife and I have not come here to do any harm. We are here to help you. We implore your Christian hospitality to help us fight the good fight.”
I looked up at Dex. He looked the part, brow softened, eyes pleading, voice rich and sincere. For good measure, even though she couldn’t see it, he put his arm around me and squeezed.
She frowned. I wished I could have seen underneath the oversized shades.
“Christian hospitality, you say?” A dusting of amusement came across her face.
“Sarah! What are you doing up?” a voice said from behind her. A stocky man of medium height and a double-chin came out from the house. Will, I presumed.
“I was about to turn these vagrants away but it was brought to my attention that it might be very ‘un-Christian’ of me.” She laughed and headed back inside, as able-bodied as anyone.
Will looked away sheepishly and took an awkward step towards us, hand extended. His handshake was clammy and quick.
“I’m sorry, she’s supposed to be napping. She hasn’t been too happy with this whole experience that’s been going on.”
He looked at Maximus, who nodded knowingly, then at us.
“You must be Dex and Perry. I’ve heard a lot about you two. Really, I am very glad that you are here. You must forgive Sarah, she’s been dealt a few rough hands with life.”
Hadn’t we all?
I smiled anyway. Will seemed like a decent person.
“Thanks for showing them around, Bird,” Will said to him respectfully.
Bird showed his palm as if to say it was no bother. He tipped his cowboy hat at us,.“I’ll be seeing you all soon.”