Rex watched her from the front porch of his Grandfather’s weathered log cabin. Three days. They had been here three days, and Jaycee had barely spoken to him, except to politelyask him to pass the salt at the dinner table.
She was hiding, emotionally at least. Not that he could blame her. He knew he had been heavy-handed that morning. But he did not regret that. When it came to keeping his family safe, he had done what he needed to do.
His cell phone rang. He looked at the number and pushed the reject button, again. Tim Masters, his boss. It was probably the tenth call the man had made since he had sent the email that night informing him that he would be taking an indefinite leave of absence to handle some pressing family business. It was not a lie. They were his family. In every way that counted.
The man had been less than thrilled to have his lead investigator just disappear, but it was the disappearance of the horses, and the call Masters had received the next day from the sheriff that had begun this barrage of calls.
Rex had taken the first couple of them, explaining that he had taken personal responsibility for the animals and would ensure their safety. He had suggested that perhaps it was not an animal attack but something more sinister dealing with the court case. Tim Masters has insisted that it was in the best interest of the animals that they were brought to the shelter then.
Rex had refused, politely, of course. He had explained that might put other animals in danger. That much was the truth, at least. The Chupacabra had come after the horses because it knew somehow that they were essential to his woman. If he had her somewhere that it could not get to her, then the thing would use the animals to draw her out.
Rex did not tell his boss, likely soon to be his former boss, the real reason. He did not trust the man. He had never liked the ambitious center director, but now he trusted no one. The Chupacabra had a human form. A human form that, like Masters, would be ambitious, greedy, and unscrupulous. Or worse.
While Rex wanted to believe that he would smell the evil, he could not be sure. What was more, even if Masters was not the Chupacabra, he could be in league with the monster or unknowingly used by it to find his family. No, the fewer people who knew where they were, the better. Not even Hector and Lupe were privy to that information.
But right now, his job was the least of his worries. Keeping them safe was first. Close behind, of course, was how to rebuild the bridge between him and Nʉ Sʉmʉ. He watched her smile as Grandfather taught Angel to speak with the horses.
He remembered the lesson well. That first summer, Grandfather had taken him into the corral. He asked Rex what the horses were saying. He had scoffed at his Grandfather, “How should I know, Old Man?”
His Grandfather had smiled and replied, “But they are speaking so clearly. Can you not understand them?”
Rex had been torn between curiosity and thinking the Old Man truly had lost his marbles. In the end, curiosity had won out. By the end of that summer, he could hear them talk too.
His Angel had not been as stubborn. She had held out her hand and replied, “I can hear them. I always hear them. But I cannot understand.”
He was not sure who had been more surprised – him, who understood the significance of her innocent words, or Jaycee for whom they were cause for further worry.
Oh yes, Angel was most definitely a skinwalker. Perhaps the strongest and purest. She did not seem to possess the same darkness that most of their kind did. Maybe that was why she had so much trouble, though?
There was nothing to filter out the screams. She heard them constantly: the cry of the wolf without its mate, the fear of the deer as it bounded through the woods away from hunters, even the buzz of the bees. She felt the weight of the ants as they struggled with burdens far beyond themselves. The tears of all the weak, the abused, and the pain of all their hurts. This tiny girl felt it all. All alone.
No more. Angel had become almost an appendage to Grandfather. From the time that she woke up in the morning until they put her to bed at night, sometimes even then, she clung to him. She absorbed every story that the Old Man told her. Asked hundreds of questions, some of them shockingly astute. She rode horses with him, cared for the animals. In essence, she did pretty much everything that a six-year-old little girl would do who lived on a farm, and then some.
He saw and heard the conflict in Nʉ Sʉmʉ. On the one hand, her heart soared with pride and joy at each of the little girl’s accomplishments. She beamed when her daughter asked a question that stumped even Grandfather. She glowed when the child told her the details of all she had learned that day.
Yet, at the same time, she hovered as she did now. Always leery, always fearful that something would happen, something would go wrong. That Angel would have another seizure or fall and hurt herself. Rex understood. That had been her life for so long that she feared to relax her guard for even a moment.
What if she did and something happened? Had she noticed that Angel had only one small seizure since they came here? Had she seen the way that her daughter was learning to center herself and build her filters? And how was she going to handle things when her precious baby no longer needed her all the time?
Rex had his ideas, his plans for how to distract the woman. But with her barely speaking to him now…
Well, that would just have to change, and now was as good a time as any to begin. He stepped off the porch and walked across the dusty yard to stand next to her by the wooden corral.
He did not speak. He waited patiently. He smiled as he caught snippets of her thoughts. So, he made her uncomfortable, made her aware of things she did not want to think about. Want things she did not believe was possible. It was a start.
Could the man not take a hint? Watching her daughter’s curly head bent so close to the straight grey, almost white, other one tugged at her heart. The smile of her child’s face went soul-deep, she could see that. If getting her away from the pollution, crowding, and noise of Dallas had seemed to improve her condition, there was no doubt that the past three days had been almost miraculous.
But it was too soon for her to give up her vigilance just yet. This could just be a fluke. However, something told her that it was not. There was something special about this place. About Grandfather.
After looking to doctors, scientists, and expert after expert for six years, was it possible that there was another path? A different option? That there was more to her child’s condition than medicine could understand? Perhaps more to the world than the eye could see or the ear hear? She was no longer sure.
She just knew that since the moment they had driven up the bumpy, dirt road, the second that the faded logs came into view with the sun setting behind the hills which surrounded them, she had felt like she belonged. Like after a lifetime, she had found a home. The home she had craved since she was a little girl in foster home after foster home.
Only her final placement had deserved that title. She had been thirteen when her social worker dumped in the red dust of East Texas. By then, she had developed a tough exterior. But the elderly couple had shown that angry teen patience and understanding with just enough discipline to make her feel secure. The Wilsons were much too old to adopt her, but they had provided the only stability she had known in her life until then. She would be forever grateful to them for that.
But it had taken her almost a year to feel comfortable with them. So, why had it been virtually instantaneous here? The sane part of her argued that it was just a childish fantasy. This was his home. His Grandfather’s. His legacy, perhaps. They were intruders for a time, visitors. When the danger had passed, they would go back to their ranch.
She could not stifle the chuckle at that thought. Five acres, a barn, and a wood frame house that all her efforts to re-decorate never seemed to cover up the fact that it was falling down around them could hardly be called a ranch.
No, this was a ranch with hundreds of acres, where even wild horses could roam free. A place steeped in history and tradition that went back generations. Angel was not the only one listening to Grandfather’s stories.
As much as she wanted to believe these strange feelings, she could not allow herself to build up her hopes. Not anymore. She had done that so many times as a little girl. Each open house at the adoption agency, she just knew that some family would claim her. But they never did.
Then Sean. She had thought that they could build a family together, be the perfect couple. But the sad truth was that they had never shared the same dreams. Her ex wanted money, power, and sex. Lots of sex. With as many women as he could get. At any cost, it seemed sometimes.
When Angel got ill, her sandcastle of dreams had crashed around her. There was no room in the man’s life for a sick child or a wife that ‘did not pull her weight’ as he had accused when she gave up the law to care for Angel.
She had promised herself then that she would re-build alone. That she could give her daughter what she never had: stability and family. As hard as it was as a single mother bearing the twin burdens of a sick child and a job, she was determined that she would do it. She needed no one.
Until that night. Until she looked into the glowing yellow eyes of that thing, that monster. She had been afraid then. Alone and afraid. She had wondered what would happen to her daughter, who would care for Angel when she was gone. When that thing ripped out her throat and broke her neck just as it had Blu’s.
She still trembled every time she thought about it. Her vision blurred, and she brought the back of her hand up to swipe the tears away. She felt a strong arm wrap casually about her shoulder. She was tugged gently closer. She told herself that she should push him away. That it was just another girlish fantasy, another stupid dream, another castle built of sand.
But she did not have the energy just then to fight him. Or herself. What would it hurt for a couple of minutes to pretend that this illusion was real? That she and Angel belonged here. With this man. That this indeed was the home she had been searching for a lifetime.
She heard and felt him sigh heavily. He turned her slowly in his arms until their eyes locked. He bent slowly; she was certain that it was going to be another of those soul-shattering kisses that they had stolen in her old barn. Instead, his soft lips gently brushed her forehead. She could not deny she was a bit disappointed.
But his next words shook her to the core. “That is no illusion, Nʉ Sʉmʉ. You are home. And nothing in heaven or on this earth will ever make me let you go again.”
She sucked in a deep breath and prepared to set him straight. Her logical brain argued that those words sounded oddly stalkerish. She used statements just like that to get restraining orders for her clients. And wasn’t it oddly strange that she had never had any trouble until he came into their lives?
Before she could get a single word out, a tiny projectile launched herself at them both. Angel wrapped her arms about them both and drew them even closer together. The three-way hug brought her body into direct contact with his. His hard body. And her own, traitor, that it was, melted instantly against him.
“Did you see me? Did you see me, Mommy? I could hear her. I could hear the horse, Rex. And this time, I knew what she was saying. She called to me. She called me by name.” Her daughter danced excitedly from foot to foot as she held them tighter and tighter.
Fear knotted in Jaycee’s chest. She always hated it when Angel got too excited. That was never good. Seizures were sure to follow. But even knowing that, she did not have the heart to reprimand her daughter. Instead, she smiled and nodded, “We saw, sweetie.”
She would talk to them later, she promised herself. Speak to Grandfather and him. Try to make them understand that Angel could not manage over-stimulation. Perhaps even bring up the idea that they should go back home where everything was more familiar. She was sure that that thing was gone now.
She knew she was running, but right now, she did not care. The longer they stayed here, the easier it would be to believe it. The whispers, the fantasies, the lies.
The old man stared at her with a strange smile upon his face. “There is something I want to show you.” He took her daughter’s tiny hand in his.
Jaycee frowned as the big one blended perfectly with the little. As if the two were one. She shook her head to clear the illusion from her vision. Then she followed them into the old barn that was attached to the corral.
The man led her daughter to an antique trunk against the wall. When he opened it, she could see nothing but old animal hides. She opened her mouth to protest that her daughter was too sensitive for such sights, but Rex’s hand was on her shoulder again, gently squeezing.
She turned and looked up into those eyes again as he shook his head. “Just watch for a moment and listen.”
“Today, my little angel, you began your journey.” Grandfather smiled at the small wonder before him. “I have heard of these men they call ‘horse whispers.’ They say that they can speak to animals. But speaking is nothing, my child. We must learn to listen. We must learn to hear what they are saying to us.”
Angel smiled up at him and nodded her head thoughtfully. “Yes, Grandfather.”
“You heard her today, I know you did. And that makes you special. Very special, Angel. But along with being special comes great responsibility. Responsibility to care for those who cannot care for themselves. Do you understand what Grandfather is saying?” the old man looked patiently at the child.
She frowned then nodded her head slowly, “I think so. You are saying that because I am special, I must take care of them, the way that Mommy takes care of me when I am sick.”
“Yes, my child, that is what I am saying. And just like it is not always easy for your mother to care for you, so it will not always be easy for you either.
“This world in which we live is out of balance. Man believes that he is the only animal on this planet that matters. That he can take whatever he wants. Land, water, the air we breathe are all there for him to do with as he wishes. Without realizing that they belong to all of us, not just him.”
“I can paint with all the colors of the wind is what you are saying, Grandfather?”
“That movie,” he laughed for a long moment. “There is more to it than the movies show, child, but yes, that is a good place to begin. You know, you hear, you understand, things that other people cannot. And what you know troubles your little mind. Makes it hard for you to simply be because you know that you have great things you must do, Angel. Very great things.”
He reached out and brushed strands of curls out of her eyes. “But you must give yourself time to learn, to grow stronger. I know that you feel the burden. That time is short for us all. Look at me, Angel.”
The child’s eyes stared deep into the world-weary ones. “There is time. Not much granted, but enough for you to grow and learn. Enough for you to just be.”
Her curls shook from side to side, massive tears gathered in her dark eyes. “How? How, Grandfather? How do I make it stop? I hear them all the time. I hear their voices, their cries. There are so many of them. And they are hurting. I have to save them!”
He wrapped his arms around the little girl, engulfed her in them as he never had. Now there were tears in his dark eyes, clouding them. “I know, child. I know.”
They stayed like that for several long moments, the ancient and the young finding strength in one another. The man with his arm about his mate’s shoulder. The beast beneath finding peace in her very presence.
Time stopped. The world grew silent. Perhaps for the first time in the tiny child’s brief existence upon this earth, there were no cries. Just the sounds of their breathing. Of life itself.
The wise man could sense it, knew that the precious gift understood. Understood this lesson, at least, and it was a beginning. Just the first of so many that he must teach her, so much that she needed to learn. More even than he knew.
She was the New Age. He merely a guide from the Old and ancient. But at that moment, he believed. Believed that together they would find a way, bridge the gap. They could do the insurmountable job which they had were given. They could, and they would. It was their secret.
He cleared his throat, “Angel, you must learn to filter some of that, those cries. You will one day learn the hardest lesson of all. We cannot save them all. There are just too many. This world is too big, too painful, too…”
He smiled and drew in a deep breath, “Just too…”
He reached slowly into the trunk and pulled out a pelt. A grey wolf. He ran his arthritic hands over it and felt the power surge beneath his fingers. Still, to this day, it was there.
In a flash of time, a heartbeat, it all came back. A lifetime of choices. Good ones and bad ones, the right paths and the wrong. They were his history, written already except for the final chapter: this blessed child. And was not the final chapter always the most important one in any book. So too, was this Angel.
He passed it to her, and she frowned. He knew that she felt it, heard the voice of the dead. He could not save her this lesson, though he might wish he could. Reality must always be faced, darkness conquered before there could be light. Truth must be revealed; otherwise, you could never see the lies. “Not this one then.” He took the skin from her.
Although she did not say anything, he saw the relief in her innocent smile. He passed over the molted white and black mustang that was Rex’s. Though the Great Spirit had entrusted his beloved grandson with the protection and care of this child, he knew that no two living skinwalkers ever shared the same skin, not while they still roamed anyway.
He passed over the mountain lion as well. There was nothing predatory about her spirit. He discarded skin after skin as he sensed each would not fit this tiny giant.
In the end, only two remained. Each was ancient, his great-great-grandparents. Perhaps even beyond that.
The one was the feathered head-dress of eagles that had been worn by one so great he dared not mention his name. Ray had thought one day to gift it to one of the museums run by his people or perhaps even the great one in Washington, D.C. Maybe the whole world needed to see this piece of his people’s history.
Or perhaps the Great Ones had another purpose for it. It was likely that not since the man who had worn it had there been a more potent skinwalker. He offered it to her reluctantly. It would be a big spirit to grow into.
The child frowned and shook her head. She drew back and covered her ears with her hands. “Too much blood, too many voices.”
Raymond Greywolf was relieved. He was glad that this was not her path. She was right. The man’s vision of the future had brought too much blood. On both sides.
There was only one skin left, though, and it made no sense. It was the simple, soft doeskin dress that had once belonged to his grandmother and her mother before her. Though these women had born the seed of skinwalkers within their hearts and bodies, neither had ever had the gifts themselves. To his knowledge.
Of course, there was another possibility, but that did not bear thinking. He could not believe that the Great Ones would ask that of her. Such a small and sensitive child. To take the life of the one in whose skin she must walk? How could that be? No, he shook his head as he offered out the only other option.
“It is just like the one in the movie. The one, the Indian Princess, wore.” Her hand lovingly caressed it. A broad smile broke across her face. When she lifted her face, it was radiant, though tears glimmered in her eyes. “But it is too big, Grandfather. It won’t fit,” the child almost cried.
He smiled as he passed the ancient and delicate dress into the hands of its new owner. “That was the lesson, child. You must grow into it. Grow into the dress and the gifts which reside in it. It will take time, but I know you will.”
The child nodded slowly as if pondering his words. Then she was off like a wild horse. No, like the beautiful brown doe which she was. She bounded like the young fawn she was in that moment to where his grandson and her mother had stood silently just inside the door of the barn.
The woman did not look happy. This was just the first of her lessons too. She, like all mothers, must learn to let go. It was a lesson that seemed harder for the human mind than their animal cousins.
This one especially had been such a lone wolf, protecting and feeding her young alone for so long. She must learn now that she was part of a pack. That others shared her burdens. Others in whom she must come to trust. He did not envy his grandson those struggles, especially as this was only the first lesson of this day.
“I must see to supper.” The old man rose slowly from the hay that covered the barn floor. His knees hurt. His back protested. He thought of that moment when he had touched his wolf again. He had felt the power once more, such a fleeting glimpse of the man he had once been.
As he watched the woman begin to argue with Rex and her daughter that she could not accept such a gift, he knew that it was his mind, and not his broken body they all needed now.
His family. And they were home. Home to stay whether they knew it or not yet. He dusted the dirt from his jeans and tried to be casual as he brushed the back of his hands across his eyes to clear the tears. He would be more blessed by this final chapter than the whole book that had come before.