We sat there in silence, the only sound coming from my beating heart and Dex’s heavy breathing. The buck was huge, the biggest deer I’d ever seen, and its antlers seemed to reach forever into the sky, like dead branches. Huge puffs of air came out of its wide nostrils, warm mist on a cold night. It raised its head to the side like it was getting a better look at us.
“That’s not a deer,” Dex finally said, his voice barely above a whisper.
Of course it was a deer. It had a shiny coat, four strong legs and deep dark eyes. Actually, its eyes were a little too dark. The retinas didn’t reflect like an animal’s usually would when it had a light shining on it.
“What is it then?” I said through clenched teeth, as if I didn’t want it know that we were talking about it.
Perhaps it did, though. The deer took two steps forward, its head lowered, and grazed the front of our Jeep with its antlers.
“Jesus!” I swore, feeling for my seatbelt. “What do we do?”
“I have a theory,” Dex said. He suddenly slammed the gears into reverse and stepped on the gas. The wheels spun for a few seconds and we were hurtling backwards for a few yards. Dex braked, flipped the car back into drive, and we sat there. The deer hadn’t moved at all. Not a good sign.
“Are we going to have to run it over?” I asked with trepidation, not really wanting to be in a hit and run with a deer.
“It won’t let itself be run over,” he said determinedly. He stepped on the gas and we were off, hurtling down the road, the deer in our sights. Even at the speed we were going, if we hit that thing, we’d be involved in a horrific crash. I could foresee the deer’s body crunching up against our front and come flying through the front windshield at us. We’d be crushed.
“Dex!” I screamed, grabbing the Oh Shit handle.
He kept on the gas. The deer was so close I could have counted the hairs on its coat. But it didn’t budge. It was an immovable object and we were going to collide in three, two –
Dex suddenly twisted the wheel and the Jeep careened off the road. I watched out the window in a horrified daze as we passed the deer by mere inches. Only it wasn’t just a deer anymore.
It was a woman standing upright in a long flowing dress, a deer’s head for a face. I could see it all in slow-motion detail. Clasped hands at her front, the purple flowers on her black dress, the prim posture, the high collar that led up to the massive, blank head of that deer. This time its eyes glowed and followed my stare as we zoomed past it.
When the realization of what I had seen overtook the realization of what had happened, I let out a scream.
Dex wrestled with the Jeep as it went bouncing along the shoulder, heading for the unending desert beyond it. The thought of the car stopping on the road with that…thing out there, was beyond terrifying.
But with a final yank of the wheel and some maneuvering, the Jeep’s wheels found their way back onto the smooth pavement and we were bolting down the road again. I looked behind me. I could barely see it in the fading night but the figure of the woman was still there.
“Did you see that?” I exclaimed.
Dex looked in the rearview mirror. “Yeah,” he said grimly. “I really thought it was going to move.”
“No,” I said hitting him on the shoulder. “I mean, did you see that. It. The woman.”
His eyes widened and gleamed in the low light. “No…what woman?”
I told him what I saw and how I saw it in so much detail.
“Do you believe me?” I asked, as if it mattered.
He nodded. “I believe you. And this just proves one thing. We better get to Bird and fast. He’s got a lot of explaining to do about these skinwalkers.”
We ended up driving all the way back to the ranch. I kept my eyes vigilantly focused for any other ornery creatures or half-human beasts ready to run us off the road. I didn’t see any. Nor did I see any side roads or detours that could have led us astray. Instead, we did a U-turn right in front of the Lancaster’s gate and drove onwards again, slowly this time, making extra sure we weren’t losing our path.
After ten minutes of holding our breath and creeping along at a pedestrian speed, the lights of Red Fox got closer and closer, the landmarks of broken fences, mobile homes and sprawling acreages looked familiar once again and soon we were pulling right up into the dusty, packed parking lot of Rudy’s bar.
Dex put the vehicle in park, flicked off the engine and rested his head on the steering wheel with a thump.
I patted him gently on the back. My contact made him jump slightly.
“At least we made it this time,” I said meekly.
He turned his head on the wheel to look at me. The pale light that emanated from the bar and filtered in through the windscreen made him look tired and washed out. I suppose he probably was, though. I know I probably lost a few pints of blood due to fright. I still wasn’t feeling all there. I felt like I was one step away from a panic attack but now that we were at the bar, where people were, I needed to hold it together.
“How the fuck did that happen?” he mumbled, face smushed against the wheel. “Are we on The Outer Limits?”
“I don’t know…”
“Seriously, though. Am I going crazy?” he actually looked worried.
I almost had to think before I shook my head. Sure, he might be going kind of crazy from the lack of medication but I was in the car with him. I was there too.
“If you’re going crazy, then I’m going crazy too.”
“That’s a possibility.”
We had discussed that before. How two people could share a conscience and imagine the same things. But as unlikely as it had been back in Oregon, it was just as unlikely now.
“Well, whatever the hell is going on…we’re one step closer to finding out what it is.” I gestured to the bar which had drunken cowboys spilling out of it already.
We got out of the car and walked up to the door. I figured I might look a bit out of place thanks to my bandaged hands and cut-up appearance but apparently I didn’t. As we walked up the stairs, three young cowboys (well, guys in cowboy hats. I just call everyone in cowboy hats cowboys) broke into wide grins at the sight of me and fired a range of greetings.
“My, aren’t you a pretty young thing?”
“How you doing good looking?”
They didn’t even look twice at my cuts. Nor did they notice Dex right behind me. I gave them all a quick smile and kept walking. Dex pushed the door open for me and we stepped into the bar.
It had done a 180 since we were in there last. The jukebox was blaring “War Pigs,” the pool tables had crowds around them, people were cheersing their beers left, right and center. In fact, I think the clinking of glass might have been louder than the music and that said a lot. People were singing, laughing, yelling. A thick layer of smoke hung in the rafters, the air smelled like sweat, beer and stale tobacco. The bartender from earlier was still behind the bar, though with a lower cut top, and the Old Prospector was still sitting across from her at the bar.
It was drunken chaos. Within five seconds of us standing in front of the door and surveying the area, we had been bumped into three times, the last bump spilling beer down my back.
“Arg!” I yelled at the perpetrator but couldn’t even see who it was through the smelly throng of people around us. Dex grabbed my hand and pulled me towards the bar, squeezing through the crowd. More men stared at me with oogley eyes. Some of them were motorbike types, some were portly ranchers, and some had to have been underage. All of them creeped me out. It wasn’t that it was because it was a small town setting and I was assuming they were hicks. It was that the gash on my cheek didn’t disturb them at all. I guess beaten women were commonplace here. Or maybe I was not the only one being attacked by wild animals.
The line for booze was about six people deep and six people wide but I assumed Dex was going to just ask where we could find Rudy, though I wouldn’t have minded several shots of tequila. The deer incident, getting lost, this sticky, strange crowd – it was all so overwhelming.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and was about to give my most defensive ‘I’m taken’ glare when I found myself eye level with a familiar chest clad in pale red plaid. Maximus. He looked happy to see me and I was more than happy to see him. I let go of Dex’s hand and hugged him. He smelled like the cologne I gave my ex-boyfriend wore.
He laughed and patted my back. “Shucks. I’m just as glad to see you, Perry. You too, Dex. Come on, they’re just over here.”
He pointed at a door near the washrooms and we followed him through the crowd, his head like a ginger beacon.
He knocked at the door three times and it opened. It was Bird. He gave us a nod and ushered us inside.
The room was small, your typical in-house office. There was a ratty couch, a few posters of the desert on the wood paneled walls, an overstuffed filing cabinet, a bookshelf that had been someone’s carpentry project. In the middle was a steel desk piled high with books. Behind it sat a thin, wiry man with round glasses. He was expressionless, his face was narrow and pointy, his skin the color of red bark. He was dressed simply in grey jeans and a blue collared work shirt, his neck, wrists and fingers were adorned with Shan-like jewelry.
“Have a seat,” he said quickly, his voice clipped with the tiniest hint of an accent
Maximus, Dex and I piled onto the couch. It slumped under our weight and I was squished in the middle. Felt like I was going to have a Dex/Maximus cave-in at any moment.
Bird leaned against the wall and nodded at the man. “This is Rudy. Rudy this is Dex and Perry.”
Rudy gave us a curt nod. “Welcome to my bar. Where do we begin?”
“You certainly don’t waste any time,” Dex said.
“I’m afraid we don’t have much time to waste,” Rudy said and got out of his chair. He walked around the desk, a short little man, and stopped in front of us. Actually, he stopped in front of me. He put his hands on his knees and stooped over to look me in the eye. I could see my reflection in his glasses. I didn’t dare move. He smelled like sage or some kind of earthy herb. It was quite pleasant but made my head spin with its headiness.
He stared at me for what seemed like an eternity. Finally he straightened up and said to Bird, “You were right about her.”
“What?” I asked, despite not really wanting to know. “What about me?”
Rudy looked at Bird who raised his eyebrows in response. Rudy turned back to us. “It’s all of you, actually.”
“All of us what?” asked Maximus.
“I’m not sure,” Rudy admitted. “I have my theories though but I don’t think you’re ready for them.”
“God damn it!” Dex yelled suddenly and sprang to his feet. He got in Rudy’s face and started pointing at him. “I’m sick of you people lying to us!”
“Dex!” I barked at him. “Sit down.”
Bird chuckled and laid his hand on Dex’s shoulder, pushing him back from Rudy.
“Easy there boy,” Bird said gently. “I know you’re frustrated and so are we. You have to understand that we don’t…we aren’t trying to be difficult. It’s just some things are hard to explain, even to the people who would take any explanation.”