He is the type of Indian nobody imagines when they think of Indians. First off, nobody would ever pick the name “Brad” for an Indian. Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Standing Bear never went to war with a brave named Brad at their side. Then there is the way he dresses: dirty cotton work shirts tucked into Wranglers, topped off with a black felt cowboy hat that had seen better days. He doesn’t even live on the Navajo reservation; instead, he left home at 17 and got a job with the Arizona Department of Transportation, where he lays asphalt across the desert for most of the year. No way in hell anyone pictures an Indian in a hard hat.
It was just the two of us when he finally told me an Indian story. The rest of the crew had gone to bed after we drew the short straws for the night watch. In the darkness away from our campfire, 150 horses slept or chewed slowly at the hay in front of them. They weren’t going anywhere, but the group that had hired us for the week wanted a couple men to keep watch around the clock.
We spent most of the night in silence, passing back and forth a can of rolling tobacco and taking pulls from a handle of Jack Daniels the camp crew had sent over for us. I didn’t blame him for not talking to me; I was just a dumb white kid of 15 that had picked up the job through my father. The night before I had drank too much and melted the sole of my boot when I passed out in front of the fire. Pushing me out of my chair to wake me up, Brad let me know what bullshit it was that I was getting the same paycheck as the rest of them. I felt my stomach drop when we drew night shift duty together.
I’d just gotten done walking the picket lines – shining a light on each horse while counting them off to make sure they were all accounted for – when I sat back down by the fire and began rolling another shoddy cigarette.
“Full count?” he mumbled.
“Yep. Two loose ropes, but that’s it.”
I settled in for another hour of quiet before I had to walk the lines again. The whiskey was making me tired, but it made the chill in the air more tolerable. It also put me in the mood to talk; the silence was getting the better of me.
“Thought I heard an animal out there though,” I said, trying to hook him into some conversation.
“There’s a shitload of animals out there,” he said, “they’re called horses.”
“No, I mean like a wild –”
“I know what you meant.”
I figured that would be the end of it. I was silently cursing him for being an asshole and myself for even saying anything.
Then quietly, he said, “Probably a skinwalker.”
“A skinwalker,” he said again, “Navajo shape shifter.”
I couldn’t tell if he was serious, so I laughed. The fire was burning low, and I couldn’t make out much of his face. But, I knew for certain he wasn’t smiling.
“You’re shitting me, right?” I said finally, wondering if the Jack Daniels was beginning to snakebite me again.
The fire popped loudly, sending a couple embers into the dirt next to my chair.
“The Navajos have shape shifters?”
“They aren’t Navajos. Not anymore. They aren’t even people.”
“So what are they?”
“Demons. Fuckin’ demons.”
His eyes were glued on the fire. There wasn’t any fear in his voice, but there wasn’t humor either. He took a long drink from the bottle and wiped the corners of his mouth with his sleeve.
“It’s bad juju. You ever look one in the eyes, they’ll steal your soul,” he paused, “and your face.”
He was barely talking above a whisper. Finally, he took his eyes off the fire and looked across at me.
“I don’t believe in a fuckin’ word of that Bigfoot shit. Same goes for aliens and everything else like that. But skinwalkers…skinwalkers are real, man.”
One of the horses bit another, setting off a small skirmish at the far end of one of the lines. We shined our flash lights down at them, and they calmed down, pawing the ground a few times before settling back into the night.
“You ever see one, Brad?”
“Shit, I don’t know. Maybe.”
I wanted to ask more, but I knew he was done talking. It was still hours before dawn, and the fire needed fuel. Standing and readjusting his filthy hat, Brad set out into the dark for wood. As he passed me, he dropped the bottle of whiskey into my lap without a word. The tobacco in my cigarette was badly rolled and had gone out while we were talking. I relit the end of it and watched as his flashlight disappeared into the woods.