Many years ago I wrote a short story for a little Weird West anthology that would eventually become The Widow’s Son. It’s a bit rough, but I reckon I’d share it all the same.
Zarahemla and the Skin-Walkers
Rain was falling like the wrath of God, beating the wide dirt street into a slag of mud and horseshit. Zarahamla Two Crows slouched against a post under the shelter of the veranda and gazed through the sheets of rain into the darkness. He dipped his frybread into a tin pan of old woman Bitsinnie’s mutton stew.
“You think they’ll be coming down the road,” I asked the mountainous lawman beside me, clutching my Winchester repeater tight to my chest.
“Then whatcha watching for?”
He chewed on a grease-soaked chunk of bread. Licking his fingers he creased his eyes like paper cuts and gazed harder. “Ain’t watching nothin’. I’m thinking, Mr. Henry.”
I could see my Mary Anne and our little ones peering at us through the window and shooed them away. Looking back up at Two Crows I asked, “Thinking what?”
“Thinking, Mr. Henry, that Mrs. Bitsinnie makes just about the finest mutton stew I ever tasted.” He handed me the tin pan, sopped clean by the frybread, and smoothed his grizzled black beard. “I was also thinking,” he added, “that if I was going to raid a two-bit town in the arse-end of nowhere, mebbe this is the kind of weather I’d do it in.”
“When do you think they’ll come?”
“Right soon,” he replied. “I can smell ‘em.”
Dropping the plate, I clutched my rifle tighter. The scent of waterlogged earth, manure, and sagebrush was heavy in the wet air. “I don’t smell nothing out of the ordinary,” I said.
“You didn’t share a teat with a litter of Jackalopes, neither.”
He had a point. Folks always figured Two Crows a might bit odd, but I reckon any man orphaned as a babe and suckled by fearsome critters is gonna have peculiar habits.
“When they come,” he said as he drew his custom-built Smith & Wesson .577 Snider and inspected the action, “don’t get all nervous-like and start shooting at shadows.” He looked down at me. “You hear?”
“Yessir,” I stuttered.
“Mighty noble of you to stand and fight for your hearth and home, Mr. Henry.” Two Crows dropped the massive nickel-plated revolver back in the holster and checked its matching twin. “But I don’t expect you to. These ain’t regular hooligans we’re dealing with, and ain’t no one would think you less of a man to sit this one out.”
“Ain’t no Injun gonna drive me off my land,” I said, trying to find my resolve. I caught his raised eyebrow and quickly added, “No offense, sir.”
Two Crows shrugged. “None taken,” he said.
He looked up and down the street, and pursed his lips. Catching a whiff of something on the wind, he snapped his head up and around, scanning the underside of my porch roof. He pulled a bandana over his mouth and nose, and motioned me to do likewise.
Fast as a rattlesnake, he drew both of his hand cannons, cocking each as he trained them above us.
“Stop skulking around up there, shilah, and come out where I can see you,” he ordered. A high-pitched, chittering laugh replied. I never heard the like, and ice water flowed through my veins.
Two Crows fired both guns into my porch roof. My ears rang from the deafening blast, and the laughter above us twisted into a tortured shriek, followed by profane cursing. A dark, writhing shape tumbled off the roof and into the river of mud at our feet.
Without ceremony, Two Crows fired another volley into the hairy, doglike beast. Shuddering, it transformed before our eyes into the body of a young man, naked as a jaybird and painted white from head to toe.
Another figure pounced from above, quiet and lithe as a polecat, transforming into a tall woman as it landed in front of us. She stood defiant, staring us down. Long black hair woven with raven feathers cascaded over her narrow shoulders, floating around her in defiance to the wind and rain, as if she were underwater. Besides the white paint and feathers, she wore nothing she wasn’t born with. Try as I might to look away, I found myself transfixed.
Her charms had no effect on Two Crows.
“Yá’át’ééh, Zarahemla” she cooed with a voice like melting rum butter.
Two Crows stood motionless. I attempted to reply for him, but found my throat too dry to manage anything more than a weak rasp.
“Why’d you go and shoot my friend?” she asked Two Crows with a full-lipped pout that made my heart race. “That wasn’t very nice.”
“T’áadoo baa shíni’,” he spat.
She shrugged and stepped over the body. “It’s been a long time, shínaaí. Come to take me away again?”
He grunted in reply. “This time I’ll see you meet the hangman.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” she purred, and stepped closer.
“No games, Ooljee.” Two Crows brought up both his guns.
He looked across the street at the four men perched in a line along the rafters. Long black hair obscured their faces, and their painted bodies glowed like foxfire through the driving rain.
Ooljee retreated a pace. Locking her eyes with mine, she brought a hand to her lips. Two Crows shouted something, but his warning was miles away. All I could hear was her honey voice in my mind, promising pleasures no man had the courage to imagine. Time slowed and I pulled my bandanna off my face and moved to her. She smiled, and blew a kiss. A cloud of white dust billowed from her lips toward me.
Next thing I knew, Two Crows had me snatched up like a rag-doll and was running us down the length of the veranda. He was shooting that god-awful loud gun of his and screaming at me to wake the hell up.
He smashed through my front door and deposited me roughly on a pile of potato sacks.
From where I lay, I watched the four men on the rooftops as they danced and hopped in the rain. Their wet hair lashed in the windstorm like serpents. As one body they leapt, shifting into giant coyotes as they flew to the ground. They raced across the muddy street toward us, yapping and howling.
Two Crows crouched below the window and reloaded his revolvers. He tossed a heavy empty cartridge at me, hitting me in the forehead.
“Ow!” I winced. “Whatcha gone do that for?”
He grinned through his beard. “Just making sure you was back with us, Mr. Henry.”
The devilish sound of the coyotes’ barking surrounded us. I lifted myself up, surprised to find that I was still clutching my rifle.
“Mary Anne!” I called to the room in the back. “You and the young’uns okay?”
Her voice trembled as she replied, “We’re fine, but there’s a woman outside, Tom, beggin’ me to let her in. She sounds so scared!”
“Don’t let her fool you, ma’am,” Two Crows shouted. “She’s worse than the lot of ‘em put together.” He looked over to me and said, “They can’t come in ‘less they’re invited, but they’re damned wily and they’ll try to draw you out. I’m going after these four—you need to protect your family. Think you can keep your head straight this time?”
I hesitated a moment, uncertain, and said that I’d do my best.
“The trick with the yee naldlooshi,” he said, “is don’t look ‘em in the eye.”
“Weren’t that skinwalker’s eyes I was lookin’ at,” I muttered.
He chuckled in that deep, gravelly way of his and scooted over to the shattered doorway. Sometimes it was hard to tell if the man was laughing, or coughing up briers.
I left him scanning the street as fleeting shadows darted and yelped in the rain. With tortured howls they taunted me to come out after them, but the thunder of Two Crow’s guns drowned out the jeers.
Driving rain was lashing through the back room from an open window. My two oldest children sat on the floor, clutching each other. It only took me a heartbeat to realize my wife and our baby were missing.
“Where’s Mama?” Panic clutched at my heart as it fell like a lodestone into my boots. “Where’s Mama and the little one?”
“Mama—Mama just handed Jonah to that Injun woman—just handed him to her right through the window,” my tiny Sarah-Anne stammered. “Then she followed right after her. We—we tried to stop her but she wouldn’t stop, Daddy. She wouldn’t stop!”
I hopped through the window and ran out into the darkness screaming Mary Anne’s name.
She was walking through the field, ankle-deep in the sucking red mud. Dropping my rifle, I grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. “Where’s Jonah?” I screamed through the wind and rain. She looked at me with dead eyes and tried to speak, but the wind snatched the words out of her mouth.
Lightning struck an old sycamore, flooding the field with the brilliance of a hundred noonday suns. In the flash I saw the woman, the skinwalker Ooljee, making for the raging arroyo with our Jonah clutched against her bosom. As she ran her hair flowed out behind her, feathering into great black wings. She turned to me, and in that instant her face flashed between that of a beautiful woman and a giant crow.
Cruel laughter filled my mind as the world plunged back into darkness. She took flight, our son clutched in her mighty talons.
I fell to my knees and scrabbled for my rifle, but a rough hand pulled me out of the muck.
“She’s long gone,” Two Crows stared down at me from atop his horse. “You best see to your wife and other youngsters.”
“We can’t just let her run off with my son,” I shrieked. “We have to go after her!”
“Ain’t no ‘we’ in this here equation, Mr. Henry,” Two Crows shouted back over the squall. “But I’ll find your son. And I’ll bring him back to you. Or my name ain’t Zarahemla Two Crows.”