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Six-year-old Colt Black froze, hiding the fact that he was shaking. He lay near a thin-paned window that had been built into the plaster, mud and timber of the hogan built by his Navajo grandparents. It was a warm summer night. The son of a famous medicine man, Colt couldn't show fear—ever. Medicine men were considered courageous. Heroic. Powerful. But fear rippled through him like the evil lightning that often came in the summer thunderstorms to stalk the Navajo reservation. Navajos feared two things—being struck by lightning and getting bitten by a rattlesnake. If bitten or struck, the person was sent away from their family forever. No one wanted the curse of bad energy hanging around.
This time it wasn't the thunder that had awakened him. His parents had brought the family to visit his father's parents. His sister, Mary, a year younger than him, slept with her back next to Colt. They were all in the large hogan. During his family's visit, his father, Harvey Black, had placed him at the low window to sleep. Big mistake as something had awakened Colt. Rubbing his eyes, he saw the moon shining brightly through the small, dusty window.
A face suddenly appeared at the window, and a scream lodged in Colt's throat. Through wide, shocked eyes he stared at the coyote and man who seemed to be melded together into one head and body.
It was a Skin Walker!
This was the most feared of all the sorcerers on the Navajo reservation. Colt's father was a medicine man of good standing and fine reputation. But there were others who wanted only domination and didn't care about helping. They were witches who worked with the dark side of energy. These men lusted after power and unconditional control. They could shape-shift into the body of a coyote and possessed superhuman strength. Skin Walkers prowled through the night in hopes of possessing the soul of a human who had been caught outdoors after dark.
Colt should have felt safe but he didn't. He was unable to move as his gaze met the glittering, gleaming eyes of the Skin Walker. The monster's mouth opened and he smiled. The canines of a coyote-man dripped with saliva. He pressed his muzzle against the glass, his nose flattening against it.
No! Colt tried to move. Terror and chills worked up his spine. The eyes of the Skin Walker continued to stare into him. Lips lifted away from its teeth in a savage grimace. Colt's young mind screamed. His mouth worked, but nothing came out. He was truly paralyzed, a captive of this grisly sorcerer.
His small hands clenched into fists as the Skin Walker's entire head filled the window. Where his black nose pressed hard and flattened against the glass, puffs of moisture came and went. Only a quarter of an inch separated them. If only Colt could cry out for help. His father's snoring reminded him that he was nearby. Why didn't his father wake up? He was a medicine man with powerful paranormal sight, a great healer among their people. Mind frantic, Colt could only stare at the snarling mouth, the yellowed teeth and the dripping saliva.
It was then that Skin Walker lifted his paw; his nails were long, jagged and gnarled. Colt stared at them, mesmerized. The high, screeching sound of claws scraping against glass continued at the window. Savagely, the Skin Walker tried to claw through it to get at Colt. Instinctively, Colt thrust out his hand and touched his sister Mary's hip. She was asleep. Didn't she feel the evil of the Skin Walker who wanted to possess him?
His heart was beating so wildly in his chest he thought it would pop. Why didn't anyone wake up? And then, a scream finally lurched out of Colt's mouth. It was a high, truncated shriek. Mary stirred and instantly joined in, disoriented and frightened.
The whole family awakened, but not soon enough, for Colt caught the Skin Walker silently mouthing a curse at him. In seconds, it disappeared from the window, dust rising in the wake of its departure.
Now, many years later, Colt jerked awake, quickly sitting up on his pallet, the light sheet pooling around his hips. He was sweating, his heart pounding. He shakily pushed his fingers through his short hair and tried to forget the savage glitter in the Skin Walker's eyes. The nightmare had stalked him at least once a week since that horrible night. His life had been forever changed by that experience. Looking up, Colt watched the moonlight leaking through the gauzy curtains across the three windows of his small hogan. It was summer. He'd opened the windows, the screens were in place. No one drove or walked outside at night. When the sun went down, people were inside, doors locked against the roving Skin Walkers who moved like silent, deadly shadows across the desert landscape.
Another ugly scene arose from his memory. Mary…his little sister. Something life-changing had happened the following week after the Skin Walker had come to the window of the hogan and tried to get at Colt and his sister.
Their father, Harvey Black, was late getting back from a ceremony. He'd taken Colt and Mary with him since he wanted his children to see what he did. Their pickup had coughed, sputtered and rolled to a stop on a dirt road. Harvey had tried several times to get it to start, but the engine was dead.
Terrified when his father had left them in the pickup as darkness fell, Colt was charged with keeping the windows up, the doors locked and Mary safe. A friend's hogan was a mile down the road and Harvey was going there for help.
Colt hadn't dared ask his father about the Skin Walkers. He was too ashamed after his screaming a week earlier. Instead, Colt sat stiffly, his arms around Mary in the hot, stuffy truck cab. He'd watched the dusk deepen and sink into the ink of the night. Colt couldn't see the beauty of the stars twinkling overhead. No. He felt a Skin Walker nearby. Stalking them. The man-animal laughed to himself in glee that he had two victims to possess.
Rubbing his face, Colt sighed as he tried to erase the horror of that night. It was impossible. The Skin Walker on silent pads approached from the rear of the truck. Colt felt him coming. Mary was asleep in his arms, completely unaware of the danger they were in. Suddenly, the coyote shape-shifter lifted his lips in a snarl and placed his yellow fangs against the driver's-side window. With his claws, he worked to open the door. Colt went into shock.
The Skin Walker howled, laughed. Drool came out of the sides of his mouth as he walked around the truck again and again. He clawed at the windows, halted, then pulled on the locked door latch. The pickup shook with the power of his efforts to get to them.
Colt sat there, mouth pursed, his arms tight around Mary, heart pounding. The nightmare didn't seem as if it would ever end.
Finally, the Skin Walker, who had tried every way to get into the truck, got impatient. Shape-shifting back into a human, he cursed them in Navajo, left and then returned with a huge rock in his hands.
To his everlasting terror, Colt watched the rock smash through the driver's-side window. It cracked into thousands of weblike lines. The Skin Walker's laugh and howl made every hair on Colt's body stand up. With one hard smack of the sorcerer's palm, the window burst into the cab, scattering like hundreds of shattered diamonds all over them. After shape-shifting back into a coyote, the Skin Walker reached in and dragged Mary to the other side of the pickup. Colt screamed and tried to place himself in front of her.
In moments, the Skin Walker had jerked open the door. Colt would never forget the rotting, dead odor around the coyote, those wild yellow eyes. As much as he could, he kept kicking at the monster. Mary pressed up against him and the door, crying out.
Colt felt the hot sting of the Skin Walker's fingernails as he raked them across his cheek. Though frightened, he felt no pain. All he wanted to do was stop the Skin Walker from taking both of them. The survival instinct gave him the courage to combat the sorcerer. But nothing stopped the Skin Walker from looming inside the cab, his narrowed eyes fixed on Mary. No!
Even as Colt tried to fight back, the Skin Walker snarled and struck Colt in the face. A terrible crunching sounded inside Colt's head. The blow was so powerful, it knocked him unconscious.
When he came to later, his father and his friend stood panicked over him. Mary was gone! Colt tried to tell them everything, but his front teeth had been knocked out, his mouth was swollen. It was the only time he'd heard his father scream and then begin to sob. In the end, they'd found Mary two days later, after a massive search, dead upon the slopes of a mesa where the Skin Walker was known to live. Shortly after that, his father had taken a rifle, stalked the witch and shot him dead. No one on the reservation ever told law enforcement anything. But everyone knew that his father had killed the male witch known as Yellow Teeth.
Colt had never forgiven himself since that night. He should have protected Mary more. If he had, she would be alive today.
Getting up, the moonlight gleaming against his naked body, he walked over to the small kitchen counter and poured himself a glass of water.
As he drank, the cooling liquid refreshed him. He set the glass down on the counter and glanced at his watch. It was 1:00 a.m. and he had to get back to sleep.
As he settled back down on his pallet and pulled the sheet up to his waist, Colt closed his eyes. The fear had dissolved. How long was this nightmare going to follow at his heels? He was twenty-eight years old. It was ridiculous, he thought, that this same nightmare could trail him for so long. Sighing softly, he punched the pillow and lay on his side, his back to the windows.
As the son of a famous Navajo medicine man, Colt couldn't speak of his horrors. He'd learned his lesson. Way back when, his father had laughed that night when he'd heard the story from Colt, saying it had only been a dream. Looking back on it, that first visit to the hogan was only the beginning. Yellow Teeth had targeted Colt and Mary and wanted to possess them.
Because Colt didn't want to sleep by that window, he'd cried. He wanted to curl up against his mother. She had already taken weeping Mary in her arms and had allowed her to sleep beside her after the incident. Disappointed, his father scolded him, stressing that he was a young man now and no longer had the luxury of a mother's arms to protect him. After all, Colt was the first-born son and was expected to show courage, not cowardice, in the face of such danger.
Harvey shook his finger in Colt's face and told him he was a coward. Only one without courage screamed in the face of fear—real or not. Colt was forced by his disappointed father to lie back down facing that same window. When he awoke the next morning, they had a naming ceremony for him: Colt Runs Away. In Navajo society, one was given a name after birth, but it could be changed at any time depending upon events in a person's life. Well, at six years old Colt had been renamed and coward was whispered on the lips of all his relatives from that time onward.
This was danger mixed with violence, threat and raw evil, but it made no difference to his family. Lying here now, as an adult, Colt went through the entire scenario again as he had thousands of times before. His father had told him from an early age that Skin Walkers were male witches who possessed a coyote spirit in order to possess a person. And once possessed, that person became zombielike. They drifted like detached, lifeless ghosts through their lives. Outsiders would say they were addicted to drugs by their vacant-eyed stare, their inability to feel or react to any emotions. They all died unnatural and early deaths. Colt shivered internally. At six years old, actually seeing a Skin Walker through the window had driven the terror home.
Colt had not wanted to follow in his father's footsteps because it was well-known that sorcerers constantly battled medicine men for supremacy on the reservation. There was a shield to protect a medicine man from possession and his father had taught Colt how to protect himself. Raw courage in the face of such evil was expected of him.
Everyone's courage had been tested the night Yellow Teeth had stolen and killed Mary. Colt grew up hounded by Yellow Teeth in spirit. Skin Walkers were just as powerful without a body. To this day Colt had to keep the bubble of protection around himself twenty-four hours a day or the shape-shifter would attack and possess him.