“Well, try us then,” Maximus sighed. I could hear the exhaustion in his voice. He may have not gotten lost on the road like we had, but the situation was wearing him down just as much.
Dex shook his head and started pacing around the room. “I just don’t see what the big deal is. You obviously have an idea of what we are dealing with here.”
“And it’s just an idea. But you have a right to hear it. That’s why I agreed to meet with you. I might be able to help. I just needed to know how open your mind was,” Rudy said. At that, Dex stopped pacing and folded his arms, legs rigid in a stance.
Rudy took off his glasses and quickly rubbed the bridge of his nose. “And I’m afraid time is of the essence. I won’t have time for too many questions tonight, so just let me talk.”
“We’re all ears,” I encouraged, sitting on the edge of the couch in anticipation. Maximus was alert beside me. Dex kept his sniper eyes on Rudy, waiting.
“I’m a medicine man,” Rudy said briskly. “I used to do it as a full-time job but the thing is, it doesn’t pay. It’s a gift. We don’t take payment for the things we do. Sometimes we do but most of the time if someone needs help, we have to help them. And out here on the reservations, people aren’t very well off. So I have this bar. I like to think of it as a doctor’s office. People still come into see me with their problems, usually curses and the like, and I can help them and they can buy a beer at the same time. Sometimes I just listen. That’s the way of life when you own a bar. But for the most part, I am just Rudy. So I can only offer you my opinion, take it with a grain of salt. I am just a man.”
He walked over to the couch and sat down on the armrest beside me.
“Bird had first told me about what was happening with the Lancasters two months ago. Way before you came into the picture, Maximus. It’s more than just what Will has been telling you. A lot more. There had been a lot of, uh, unusual circumstances at the ranch. And right away, we knew what it was. Yee naaldlooshii. I don’t even like to say that name but all signs pointed to it. But Will would never admit that. He’s turned his back on his beliefs, even though, deep inside his heart, he knows the truth. You can put lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig. And until he sees what we see, and welcomes it, it’s not going to stop.”
“But the yee…the skinwalkers. What do they want with him?” I asked.
“I don’t know for sure. I don’t even know if there is more than one of them. Skinwalkers are people like me, medicine men, or witches who indulge in the Frenzy Way…wicked spiritual practices, whose only intent is to scare, harm or kill. With Will, because it’s been going on for so long, I would say they just want to torture him. That’s what Bird and I thought. Then you showed up, Maximus, and gave Will a reason to think it was something more…acceptable. I don’t know why a ghost or “white” spirits are so much more acceptable to Will than a yee naaldlooshii but that’s the way it is. And this ignorance made it angry. More determined. Then Will took it further and invited two young, and white, journalists to be ghost busters. Not only that, but to get it on tape. That is bad form. If Will was still following the way he would have had this dealt with, by me, maybe, and it would have been done undercover. But to broadcast this to the world is such a slap in the face. So the skinwalker is angry. It wants more than ever to prove its existence to him. And it’ll use you people to do this. Ghosts don’t harm or maim people. They just scare. Skinwalkers…they kill. I think you are all in real danger. Even at this moment. I feel like there are people in this bar who could hurt you.”
I was hanging on to every word with icy stillness but that sent a full throttle shiver through my body. Maximus put his arm around me and started rubbing me lightly, his face focused intently on Rudy.
“I won’t let that happen if I can, but that’s why I had to rush, to let you know before you go back out there.”
“But you said there was something about us…,” I said.
“Yes. Normally it wouldn’t be a concern because white people are not easy to witch. You don’t believe. But, unfortunately I suppose, you three do believe. And you want to believe, which is worse. And…there are certain energies coming from you, especially you Perry, that will work against you in this situation. Skinwalkers deal on the principle of power. The more powerful you are, the more powerful you can become. It sounds redundant. But if a skinwalker cuts the piece of the body of a dead medicine man, then they become stronger. If they encounter someone with a similar life force, they will want to…plug in, I guess that’s the appropriate term. Or not. You’re like an outlet and they are a device, always looking for more power. Even a few strands of hair would help them. Imagine what they could do if they got a hold of your finger.”
I felt sick. Bird pointed at my face. “Or your eyeballs.”
I felt sicker. Maximus pressed me closer to him. It helped.
“Sorry,” Bird said gently. “We know that crow wasn’t just a crow.”
Dex was staring at me strangely before he said to Rudy, “So do we know who these skinwalkers are? You say they are people?”
He nodded and got up. “Yes. They are people. As I said, most likely medicine men, or witches.”
“Shan,” I whispered. Everyone looked startled to hear me say that but I knew they had been thinking it too.
Bird shook his head. “And this is where it gets tricky. No one wants to play the blame game here. There are many, many medicine men around these parts. I don’t think it’s Shan. I know it’s not.”
“How do you know that?” Dex countered.
“Because I work with the man. I know him. I know he wouldn’t ever do anything to hurt the Lancasters. And besides, he’s been around during a lot of the activity. A skinwalker cannot be in two places at once.”
“Miguel,” Maximus said suddenly.
“Miguel is Mexican,” I hissed at him.
“So?” He looked up at Rudy. “Does it have to be Navajo? Couldn’t Miguel learn?”
“Listen, I don’t think it’s anyone at the ranch. It wouldn’t make any sense.”
“Maybe it’s you. You’re a medicine man,” Dex said boldly. Too boldly.
But Rudy shrugged it off. “You’re right. It could be me. It’s not, but I’m glad you’re thinking that way because you can’t be too careful. You must understand how serious this is.”
“So what do we do then?” I said feeling so small and so hopeless.
“You can leave,” Rudy said. “Leave tonight.”
“No way,” Dex objected. “No fucking way, Dr. Spooks.”
He looked at me to see how I felt. I agreed. Sorta. I did not want to be in any danger, especially danger that kind of involved actual people…er, slash animals. But I couldn’t go back with nothing. I couldn’t. And Dex couldn’t either. We didn’t have a choice. We had to stay.
“Yeah,” I put in. “I don’t think leaving is an option for us. We’ve barely got anything. We aren’t going back empty-handed.”
“Then you’re walking straight into the fire,” Rudy warned. “They will make you leave and if that doesn’t work, they will kill you. You understand? Kill you.”
“That’s a risk we are willing to take,” Dex said straightening up, looking as determined as ever.
“Oh come on Dex,” Maximus said. “Seriously, if it’s going to be like this, it’s not worth it.”
Dex ignored him and fished Nicorette out of his pocket.
Maximus looked at me and squeezed my arm tighter. It stung. “Perry. I know Dex isn’t all there, but you’re a smart lady. I would do as Rudy suggests. In fact, I may do as he suggests.”
“Right,” Dex laughed to himself. “Then where would you get your fifteen seconds of fame from?”
“Excuse me?” Maximus got up, his hulking height towering over Dex. Dex grinned and took a step backwards.
Really? A fight? Was this happening now out of all things?
“You heard me,” Dex chewed, taunting him. “That’s the only reason you suggested us to Will.”
Now it was Maximus’s turn to laugh. “Right. Like it would help me out to be on your shitty show…on the internet!”
“Whoa!” I yelled and found myself getting up. I put myself between them and pushed them both away from each other. Or, at least I tried to. They were like trees, trading barbs above my head.
“Don’t insult my shitty internet show,” I said to Maximus. I looked at Dex. “And you need to shut the hell up. We’ve got real fucking problems to deal with here. Not some stupid ass bullshit that you should have dealt with in college. I don’t even care what it is, but you need to put that behind you. Right now! For me, if anything.”
I was suddenly aware we were having a weird threesome confrontation in front of Bird and Rudy. Luckily, Bird had his diplomatic skills and walked over to us, placing each hand on the guys’ shoulders.
“She’s right,” he said. “You’re both good guys, you have a friendship here deep down. We need all of you to concentrate on what’s at hand. If you’re not going to leave, then you must be prepared to do what it takes to stay. Maximus, if you wish to leave, you can leave. But they are free to make their own decisions.”
Maximus took his eyes off of Dex’s snarl and placed them on Bird’s kind face. A wash of acceptance flowed across them. He turned around, sat back down on the couch and sighed, sinking deeper.
Bird shook Dex slightly to get his attention off of Maximus. Dex’s hands were clenched, as if he was actually considering fighting the burly ginger. He cocked his head at Bird with some reluctance and gave him a lazy stare.
Bird told him, “You need to watch yourself. You’re not well and that’s just going to make you an easy target.”
I stiffened. I thought Dex would get all crazy defensive over that but he didn’t even blink.
Bird looked down at me. “You need to watch yourself too. You can’t be too careful. Be vigilant. You both must look out for each other because that’s all you’re going to have while you’re here. Till death do you part. We don’t want to rush that.”
Dex and I both smiled at the same time. We probably shouldn’t have, given the subject matter, but I knew we both realized how bad we were at this whole fake marriage thing.
“OK,” Dex said, wiping his grin away with his hand. “Any other advice for us? You know, so we don’t die.”
“Yes,” Rudy said. “Tomorrow morning I want you to come out to my place. I have a sweat hut in the back. I can do a sweat ceremony on both of you. Maximus, you too, if you wish. It’ll cleanse your soul so that the spirits can’t find you.”
“And that will keep the skinwalkers away?” I asked.
“No. Skinwalkers are still people. But it will keep evil spirits away, and that will help. We can’t be too careful with the Lancasters. If they are powerful enough, spirits could be involved, easily.”