There were few road signs on the Gila River Reservation, which was a vast, blank expanse of land that stretched from the Estrella Mountains southwest of Phoenix almost to the Superstition Mountains in the southeast, and then down to Florence. In other words, lots of desert. Due to its lack of signage, you could easily get lost when traversing the “rez,” but hopefully you weren’t driving through it at night, which I happened to be doing. It’s a good thing I knew my way around.
I had to return to an archaeological site from earlier in the day with my friend and co-worker Jesse. We’d run out of time that afternoon, but a substantial find right before we left bartered more time on the location. The only thing was it had to be done that night or we’d lose the whole project. The tribes were picky about who was on their lands. I didn’t blame them one bit. I certainly didn’t like people snooping around in my life.
When I pulled up, I found Jesse leaning against his old Ford pick-up truck. Tattoos traced across his flesh, most common of the gang or jail variety, but each with its own distinct design from the Virgin Mary on his side to a spider web on his elbow. A good portion of the tattoos, however, where professional, and quite a few of them had faded from hours in the sun. Jesse turned his nose up at sunscreen, mostly due to his Hispanic heritage, which was insane when you lived in this desert. My family came from one of the biggest deserts on the planet and I still wore sunscreen, but there were health reasons for that.
A few elders from the local tribe joined us to perform a ritual I’d had yet to experience on a dig. Before I’d arrived, they littered the ground with a powder, covering the circumference of the entire site area. I wouldn’t consider one of them an elder, since he had long black hair showing only a hint of white framing his weathered face. His name was Bo and he stood at the base of the boulders with the others. His faded Wranglers and worn cowboy boots looked older than he did. A black leather vest covered his chest, helping him blend into the pitch black outside the circle, and an intricate Native choker made of white and black bone beads hung around his neck. It was something worn most often during tribal rituals and I had a similar piece given to me by a friend from one of the other local tribes. It was a rare gift to someone outside of the tribe and one that I treasured, but I’d never seen one worn so loose and I wondered briefly why before my mind went elsewhere with his appearance.
Bo puffed out a ring of smoke as his dark chocolate eyes scrutinized me, and my senses wreaked havoc about the tall Native American man. Something just seemed off about him from the others. It’s happened now and then and I’ve never been able to explain why my body tensed around certain people. It felt like a warning of some sort, like the kind you’d get when someone looked suspicious, and my eyes would focus on the person in question to vivid clarity, as though they were clear and everything else around them turned into an obscure fog. The problem was that Bo didn’t look suspicious outside of my inner warnings. Normally, I’d just steer clear of the person affecting me that way, but I had no choice this night. After breathing deeply and calming my heart from its race of adrenaline, I arched a brow at him and he grinned before turning his attention to the boulders we were there to inspect. His head tipped back and when my eyes followed his, I could see the full moon peaking over the top of the rock formation for its first evening of three. When Jesse noticed it, he spoke up.
“Maybe we shouldn’t be out here tonight,” he whispered in his Spanish-accented voice.
I turned to look at him. “Why not? It’s the perfect night. The Harvest Moon is the brightest of all.”
“It could be dangerous, Nadira,” he said.
I rolled my eyes and chuckled. “Seriously, Jesse, you need to stop watching the werewolf flicks.” Jesse and I shared a great passion for all things horror, and werewolf films were near the top of that list. Our favorite was The Howling.
He growled. “Fine, but if we get attacked by a werewolf, I’m saying I told you so.” Part of his voice held the chuckle, indicating he was only joking, but my ears caught the tremor of fear lacing around its edges.
“Say whatever you want, Jesse.” I picked up my bag while tucking a lock of my long black hair behind one ear. “Just as long as we can search the area beforehand, then the werewolves can have it after we leave.” He glared at me and I giggled.
The elders performed a ritual complete with chanting and dancing before we could proceed, and once Bo gave us the go ahead, I started to walk around the rocks. Jesse and the crew had set up bright lights just before nightfall and they flooded the area, leaving no room for shadows, with exception to my own. I crawled down near the crevice between rock and dirt to see if I could find anything aside from scorpions, which I hated. Ancient civilizations had an affinity for creating their masterpieces in the most awkward places, but then again, the desert floor probably wasn’t as high back then. Unlike the Valley of the Sun, the rez didn’t sit on top of a ground water reservoir, so it wasn’t sinking. The Gila River Reservation used to get their water from the Gila River, but that time had long since passed when the dam was built many years ago, practically halting all life in this area, which was now just a barren landscape and a poor community.
My body went on full alert as I heard footsteps scuffle my way, every muscle tightening as though I was about to defend myself in an improbable fight. I drew in a few deep breaths to calm myself once again. Finally, I looked up to find Bo leaning against one of the boulders. I had to wonder if he knew the torture he caused me, especially with the slight grin appearing on his face.
“What do you think you’ll find?” he asked and took a casual drag from his cigarette, further confirming my suspicion that he knew every fiber in me twisted into a knot upon his approach. When he exhaled, a long stream of smoke filtered out and disappeared into the night air. It made me want a cigarette, but I’d left them in my truck.
I shrugged. “Won’t know until I find it.” I continued to brush away dirt from the boulder’s base, keeping my eyes open for movement of the creepy-crawly kind.
“The tribe allows you to be out here,” he said, “but I’m opposed to it.” This was apparently important to tell me.
I looked up again. “Were you out-voted?”
He nodded. “You shouldn’t meddle with things you don’t understand.”
“They’re just petroglyphs and we aren’t harming them.” What we’d found earlier in the day were a series of them that depicted a man going through the Change, or so it seemed. That’s what Jesse called it. They were on top of the boulders I inspected the base of now. I’d seen petroglyphs in this desert before. When Jesse first found the three images this afternoon, I wondered what it could be—perhaps another swirl indicating the circle of life, or maybe another Man in the Maze. However, I knew Jesse wouldn’t be excited about something so common. It was rare to hear excitement in the man’s voice and he had a mean poker face, so I had to climb up to see for myself. It turned out that he had good cause for excitement because the find was a big one, and it was that find that bought us more time.
The first picture etched into the rock was of a man with what looked to be a canine-type of head. Upon first seeing it, I’d thought something along my Arabic background, but it wasn’t too far out there, especially with the mythology of Native Americans, and most people would come to the same Anubis conclusion that I had given its popularity … and that second Mummy movie. Hell, even the Turkish Asena popped into my mind, which still scoured through Native folklore as I brushed away the dirt in attempt to find one related to wolves in this area. Wolves just weren’t a common sight around here unless you went to the eastern border of the state where they reintroduced the Mexican wolf to the land.
“Still, they delve into things you can’t possibly comprehend,” Bo continued.
The second picture in the series showed the same figure attacking another man, one with a normal human head, and the third showed two men with heads the shape of some form of Anubis canine.
“Oh-kay,” I mumbled and went back to my search, where I discovered something at the base of the rock. “Jesse!” I had another set of petroglyphs similar to the first, but only showing the first two scenes.
“Don’t yell,” Bo warned, his voice a low growl. “You never know what lurks in the darkness.”
“What, like phantoms and monsters?” I teased, but he didn’t seem to like my question and rolled his eyes, shook his head, and dropped his cigarette on the ground before crushing it into oblivion.
Jesse walked up and crouched next to me. “What’s up?”
“I found another,” I said and pointed to it.
He kicked his legs out and dropped onto one hip to get a closer look. “Shit, Nadira, if it’s down here, it’ll be older than that one up top.”
“I know, but notice that the third scene is missing.” I then heard a howl in the distance to the east of us. I would have assumed a coyote, but Bo stood at sudden attention and looked out into the darkness, so I had to ask. “What was that?” He ignored me and walked off around the boulders at a quick pace. “Okay, never mind then.” I tapped Jesse on the shoulder. “What was that ritual they did?”
“Protection circle,” he replied pulled out his digital camera to take a snapshot of the images I found. “Bo’s the Medicine Man around here.” That didn’t surprise me with the way he spoke to me, but it did surprise me that they out-voted him if he held that rank. The howl came again, sounding much closer this time. It attracted Jesse’s attention. His head turned up and back a little to listen, and then he quickly took the shot and hopped to his feet. “Come with me, Nadira.”
“Why, what’s going on?” I then heard rapid footsteps pawing across the desert floor, and Jesse grabbed my arm and yanked me up.
“We shouldn’t have come out tonight,” Jesse grumbled and dragged me around to our starting point. The other two elders chanted as Bo stood near the edge of the lights surrounding us, peering into the dark desert. The light from the moon certainly cast down upon the land, but the floodlights blinded us to any darkness outside our circle.
“So that wasn’t a coyote, was it?” I asked.
Jesse turned to me and placed his hands on my arms. “Don’t worry, Nadira. I’ll keep you safe.” He always carried a gun on him. Silly me assumed it was for things like rattlesnakes.
“From what?” It was then that I saw a fully visible shadow slink along the outskirts of our circle, and it was too big to be a coyote. “What the hell is that?” Jesse shushed me and pushed me against the rock, as if I had chameleon tendencies and could blend in with the browns and grays.
Bo’s head turned back to us. “There are five,” he said softly over his shoulder.
“Do not leave the circle,” one elder said. He was ancient with long white hair and dressed similar to Bo with jeans and boots, but he wore a black cowboy shirt and a hat that God only knew was how old because its edges were tattered and worn.
I leaned into Jesse and whispered. “Um, why would I want to leave the circle when something outside of it could possibly attack me?”
“Quiet, Nadira,” he snapped in a hushed tone.
“Well it’s not like whatever those things are don’t know we’re here,” I replied. “We have a beacon of light upon us!”
Bo looked back again. “Shut her up.” I glared back at him, producing a growl that rose steadily from my throat. It excited the creatures I could barely see, and more growling took place among them, as well as a deep threatening growl the likes of which I’d never heard come from a wolf. I’d worked with a wolf pack in Wyoming several years ago right after high school, and continued to do so during the first few summers of my college education.
Bo’s head tilted to the side and he chuckled. “It’s her they want.”
“What?” I was the only female around, unless one of the creatures was a female, which I had a strange feeling wasn’t true. I squinted in attempt to see beyond the lights and discovered a pair of golden eyes watching me. They blinked, squinted, and the deep growl came again. Oh, that’s not good. It sounded pissed to holy hell.
Bo turned around and stalked toward me, his hair tufting back by force of wind from his heavy stride. “Who are you?” he demanded.
“Me? I’m just Nadira Jordan,” I said in surprise.
He stepped up to me and grabbed my arm. “You’re more than that, lady.” His nostrils flared once more. Another threatening growl came and I peered around Bo to see that those golden eyes had moved closer. Maybe it didn’t like the way Bo handled me, or was cheering him on. Either way, it wasn’t good. “You smell of ancient blood.”
“What the hell are you talk …?” I started to say when one of the creatures hurtled itself toward the circle. It bounced off an invisible wall with a yelp and hit the dirt. A cloud of dust mushroomed into the air around it, temporarily hiding the giant creature. “What the hell is that?”
Bo’s scrutinizing eyes returned to mine after watching the creature. “Why don’t you know?”
“Should I know?” I asked. “It looks like a huge wolf.”
Another large wolf tested the edge of the circle and the elders’ chants built in a crescendo from soft undertones to a thunderous rhythm of Native tongue. The wolf snarled when he couldn’t move past the unseen border. Then he reared up and growled, and swiped at the barrier. His paw—claw—only bounced back. I’d never seen claws like that on a wolf. They were closer to human fingers than wolf toes. One of the floodlights cast upon his black fur and his blue-green eyes glowed with a holographic hint to them, and they locked on me. I simply stared back. I wanted to know what he was. The lights flickered and a yell soon followed by a scream came from the area near our trucks. Two crewmembers that stayed behind to wait for us were out there. I yanked my arm out of Bo’s grasp and stomped forward. This made the wolf staring at me step back and cringe, which I thought was odd. The chants continued as I walked to the edge of the circle in attempt of a better view without blinding lights in my eyes. My lack of fear was only for the fact that I knew the wolves couldn’t get past the ritual circle, and had seen proof of such an act; otherwise I’d already be on top of the boulders. Not that it would save me from them.
I turned to Jesse. “Okay, I believe you now about the wolf skull.” We’d had a running argument about the extinct Dire Wolf and a skull found out here last year. Jesse claimed it was a werewolf skull because its size indicated the animal to weigh around 250 pounds, whereas the Dire Wolf was only about 175 pounds at best, which was larger than any wolf that still existed today. The creatures surrounding us in the still of night weighed close to that wolf skull’s original size.
He laughed nervously. “Thanks, but it won’t matter if we can’t get out of here.”
Glass broke and another fear-filled scream permeated the air, along with a ripping noise that I did not want to consider as flesh. I glared at the black wolf in front of me. He had to be at least twice the size of my wolves, and Malik was damn big for a wolf. His size made me question the Dire Wolf’s extinction. “Leave them alone!” I demanded and growled at him. Another answered my growl with one of his own, and when I looked in the direction of his voice, I found the golden eyes once more. The black wolf’s head cocked to the side and he stared at me a long moment before snarling and running off.
Bo came up behind me and peered out into the dark again. “Don’t upset them, Fadi.”
“Don’t upset …?” I snapped. “I’m the one who’s upset! Someone sounds dead. Isn’t there anything we can do to help them?”
He shook his head, eyes still locked on something I couldn’t see. “One is dead; the other is safe for the moment.” Then he averted his eyes to another location. “They’re looking for him, but another scent is distracting them.”
Growls and grunts made their way to my ears. “How can you tell?” A loud crash and the whine of the generator signaled us to the instant darkness that followed. I stood frozen. “Um, Bo?” I heard another wolf hit the barrier that still protected us and turned in time to see the dust cloud from its landing.
Bo’s eyes returned to me for a brief moment, glinting in the moonlight and followed by a grin I could barely see. Then he leaned forward when the westward wind blew against my back, took a sample of the air into his flared nostrils, and smiled. “It’s you.”
My right brow arched. It wasn’t the first time a man acted strange around me after scenting the breeze. Again, I just didn’t understand the why of it. I rolled my eyes. “Stop being so damned cryptic.”
He raised his hands in front of me and mumbled something, and then he turned back to the edge and cupped his hands around his mouth as though he was about to shout, but nothing came out. A few seconds later, I heard a coyote howl in the distance. Next, I could hear the wolves running across the desert floor, and they disappeared into the desert, chasing down the coyote.
I turned my attention back to Bo. “Wait, did you call me Fadi?”
Bo’s dark eyes met mine once more. “Lady, you have no idea what you are, do you?”
“What I am is a girl who wants to go the hell home now,” I stated. A short laugh left his throat, but not his lips. I nodded toward the circle’s edge. “Can I go out through that?”
Instead of answering me, he took two steps forward, past the magical barrier, and he nodded for me to follow. Every bone in my body warned against following him, but I ignored the signs festering within my brain. Jesse ran up behind me as I ventured out and we ran to the vehicles to find Manuel gutted next to his truck—my first full visual of a fresh death, and I was thankful that I only had the moon casting its light upon him. I’d been digging up bodies and artifacts for years, but blood was never a factor. With animals, yes, I’d seen them gutted, but with humans, no, never right after the fact. My stomach twisted and lurched from the smell and sight of fresh blood, and I found myself a few steps away on my knees as my dinner violently introduced itself to the desert floor. My breath came in ragged gasps as I heaved a few more times, my stomach feeling like someone twisted it into a series of knots. I gagged again before pushing myself to my feet. With nothing left but tangled nerves, I wiped my mouth on the sleeve of my denim jacket, checked my hair—I’d missed throwing up on that thankfully—and made my way back to Manuel’s body. Bo was on the phone with someone—probably the police or something similar—and I leaned forward to get a better view. Call it morbid curiosity. I was a scientist after all.
“His right arm is missing,” I told Jesse, who crouched down at Manuel’s feet.
“No, it’s underneath him.” He looked up at me. “You okay, hita?”
“Fine, now that I’ve lost my dinner,” I replied. “I’ve never seen a wolf do anything like this.”
“Not wolves, hita, werewolves,” Jesse said.
My eyes lingered on his serious face, and finally, I conceded to the notion. Then I grinned. “At least you aren’t saying Chupacabra.” I knew Hispanic folklore. That legend filtered all the way down into South America.
He hissed and waved his hands at me. “Eee, hita, don’t say that!”
That was totally worth it. “Oh, like there are any livestock around in this desert to bring it out.” My nerves were still a bit rattled and joking, whether normal or not, helped me to deal with the situation. Some people thought it was odd. Like I cared. It’s probably why I didn’t have too many friends.
Bo slapped his phone shut and turned to us. “You two might want to step away from him.”
“Why?” I asked.
Jesse stood up and took my arm. “He’s right. Manuel could change soon.”
“But he’s dead,” I replied. “I mean, he’s been gutted. How do you survive that?” Manuel’s body stirred, a foot twitched, and I jumped about five feet back. “Holy shit!”
Bo gave Jesse a nod. “You got silver in that gun of yours?”
Jesse withdrew his weapon. “Yep.” He pointed it at Manuel, who continued to twitch … and change. His mouth opened wide, teeth elongated to visible fangs, jaw pushed forward along with nose, and his ears started to point at the top. I was in complete awe of what I was witnessing, until he sat up, which made me take several steps back until I ran into a truck and jumped. My head turned to gauge the distance to the protective circle.
“Put him out of his misery before he gets up and kills you,” Bo stated.
Jesse nodded and pulled the trigger. A loud blast echoed in the valley when Jesse put a bullet in Manuel’s head, and then silence fell. Manuel stopped moving and slumped back to the ground. Now I’d just seen a man shot to death. This was not turning out to be a good night at all. I lowered my hands from my ears and just stared at the dead man on the ground.
Bo shook his head and kicked Manuel’s arm. “Damn new ones are hard to control.” He stole a glance at me and nodded once. “You have no choice but to kill them sometimes.”
I nodded slowly, even though I wasn’t sure what he’d said to me. I struggled to speak, but only a mere whisper would come out. “Where’s Daniel?”
Bo tilted his head back and to the side. “He’s hiding in those rocks.” They were a different set of boulders from the ones we inspected. “Daniel, you can come out now.”
The scrawny half-Native, half-Mexican young man made his way over to us, arms wrapped around his torso in protection. His brown eyes were wide and scared as they darted about. Then he rambled one big long word in Spanish that I suppose could have been a sentence if I could understand it. Jesse comforted him with a reply while pushing his hands down against the air.
Another howl sounded in the distance to the west of us, and Daniel’s entire body trembled.
Bo took a few steps toward me and touched my arm. I jumped back. He seemed amused by my reaction with the smile that hit his eyes, but he didn’t comment on it. “Can you find your way out if you go east?” I nodded. “Good. I fear we’re all in danger as long as you’re out here.”
“We can’t send her off alone!” Jesse stated.
“It’s fine, Jesse,” I said. “They’re west of us now. I can make it. Besides, I don’t particularly care to be out here anymore.”
Jesse gave me a stern look. “Call me when you hit the highway.”
“I will,” I replied.
“And then when you get home,” he added. Howls permeated the silence once again, closer.
“You must go now if you don’t want them to follow you,” Bo said.
I looked at Jesse. “Be careful.” He walked me to my truck and I turned to him again when we reached my door. “You’re not allowed to die yet.”
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’m used to this shit.”
My brow arched and I opened the door. “You’ll have to tell me more sometime.”
“I will.” He paused, clamping a hand down on my truck door. “Oh, and Nadira?”
“I told you so,” he said, and then shut the door once I’d climbed inside and started the truck. He slapped the door as laughter left me, and he waved me off. “Go!”
The Harvest Moon hung high in the sky, but it held a red tint within its lower half, which wasn’t normal by any means.
“Blood on the moon,” I whispered. “Not good.”
I barreled down the dirt road with my high beams on as fast as I could go without wreaking too much damage on my Avalanche. I was quite grateful for the four-wheel drive. I had a long drive home too. My house sat just at the base of the McDowell Mountains in North Scottsdale. It would take me about an hour or so to get there, and I had a lovely vivid memory of blood and guts splattered on the desert floor to accompany me all the way. Oh, and let’s not forget that werewolves are apparently real and I witnessed a man at the beginning stages of the Change before watching my dear friend shoot him in the head. These things are best left told around the campfire or in books.
Goddamn petroglyphs. I am so having nightmares tonight.