“I thought you said we were headed to Strawberry,” Johnny asked.
Jesse looked down and patted her horse’s neck. “We are.”
“Then shouldn’t we be headed that way?” he questioned pointing to the right with his thumb.
“Takin’ the scenic route.”
“Nothing but scrub and pines as far as ya’ can see. What other scenery you hopin’ for?”
She shifted in her saddle and pulled up on the reins. “You ever been in this part of New Mexico?”
Johnny stopped beside her and shook his head. “No, but it looks like every other part of the territory.”
“Spent anytime with the Navajo?”
He squinted at her. “No, have you?”
Jesse nodded. “Navajo won’t come within a mile of that plateau over there and neither will I.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Nope. There’ll be a full moon rising tonight and I don’t intend to be anywhere near Urraca Mesa when it does.”
He pushed his hat off his head so it hung by the stampede string and scratched his head. “Let me get this straight. You want to take us several miles out of our way because the local Indians are superstitious.”
“Yep, that about sums it up.”
Johnny shook his head and chuckled. “Jess, we need to get to Strawberry by tomorrow and the fastest way is across that flat. Now, I’m going that way. You coming?”
She took a deep breath, let it out then looked from him to the mountains and the skull shaped indentation at the top of the range.
Seeing her hesitate, he promised, “I won’t let anything bumpin’ in the night get you.”
She smiled, bit her lower lip and looked up at the skull again. “I’m not sure what’s out there bumps to give you warning.” She looked at him then at her saddlehorn. “I feel like I’m gonna regret this, but okay, let’s go.” With that she spurred her horse forward at a gallop.
He chased after her laughing to himself.
As the sky turned inky, Johnny saw the moon crest the mountains and start its slow rise in the night sky. He noted the sparsity of stars despite it being a fairly clear night and felt the gentle breeze of the day turn to a strong wind, kicking up dust in front of them, making it difficult to see. He tightened up on the reins as his horse pricked its ears forward and snorted. Johnny bent over the animal to rub his hand down the side of his neck in a calming way.
As he straightened in the saddle, Johnny sensed they were being watched and examined the area around them for signs of trouble. When his eyes turned to Jesse to see if she had felt anything, he took in her drawn face and hand resting on her gun as she tried to control her own jittery mount.
“We’re being tracked,” she told him.
“Yeah, I thought so too, but with all this dust, I couldn’t tell from what direction.”
“I’d say behind us, driving us farther into the mesa.” She reined her horse to a stop and raised her arm out to her side to get Johnny to do the same. “You hear that?”
From a distance up ahead of them, in the direction of the skull, Johnny heard a faint, rhythmic boom followed by a series of what sounded like muffled shrieks and screeches. A sensation of a hundred small spiders crawling up his back had him shivering despite the warmth of the evening.
“What the hell is that?” Johnny breathed out.
Jesse shook her head. “I don’t know, but it smells like wrong.”
Johnny looked at her with brows furrowed. “Smells like wrong?”
“Sounds like a fight, but I don’t smell gunpowder or smoke. You?”
He took a deep breath in. Horse. Leather. Pine. Nothing out of the ordinary. “No, don’t smell anything I wouldn’t expect.”
“That’s what I mean. Smells like wrong.”
Johnny heard Jesse’s sharp intake of breath and followed her line of sight to their left where his own gaze was met by several pairs of golden eyes glowing in the dark. He shifted his view to the right and found more of the same.
“They’re behind us too,” Jesse said.
“We need to move. Now.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Jesse said as she kicked her horse into action. She yelled back over her shoulder, “You think they’re wolves?”
Johnny’s horse was keeping pace with Jesse’s as he shouted back, “Never seen wolves with eyes like that.”
There was no mistaking that whatever was following them was herding them straight for the mesa plateau as the pack refused to allow Johnny or Jesse to veer from that course. The drum and battle sounds grew stronger and a cold unlike anything Johnny had ever felt crept into his marrow. They’d gone at least two miles already and their pursuers had not relented.
“I’ve never known a wolf or any animal to track people for miles like this,” Jesse remarked as she scanned the terrain in all directions.
“Me neither,” confirmed Johnny, counting sets of eyes. “But whatever they are, they’re closing the distance fast. Let’s go.”
No sooner had Johnny issued that statement than his horse pulled up short, rearing on its hind legs, refusing to go farther. The horse flattened its ears back, extended its neck and rolled its upper lip back and under itself exposing teeth and gums. Nothing Johnny did could get the horse moving forward.
“I’m not sure now’s the best time to take a break,” Jesse tossed out as she came up alongside Johnny.
“And here I thought you’d find a moonlit picnic kinda nice.”
She chuckled then put her arm over her nose, coughing out, “What the hell is that smell?”
“Damn, that must be what has the horses spooked,” Johnny answered pulling his bandana over the lower half of his face.
Following suit with her own neckerchief, Jesse suggested, “How could there be rotten eggs out here?”
Johnny felt a cold wash run down his back and the lead weight in the pit of his stomach. His heart pounded and mouth went dry. He shifted in the saddle, looking in all directions at the threat of the golden orbs encircling them. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jesse gulp with wide eyes and point out in the distance. His eyes trailed down her arm and out past her fingertip. His breathing quickened as he took in a blue light coming toward them.
The horses stamped hooves, shifting from left to right as the golden orbs moved closer and the smell of sulphur intensified. Low neighs turned to squeals as both riders tried to calm the animals to no avail. Johnny drew his gun and fired several shots toward the animals that had dogged their trail since entering the mesa. He counted the six shots Jesse took at the predators as well.
“How the hell can we not be hitting something?” Jesse shouted as she reloaded.
The steady drumming matched the pounding in his head as he tried to shut out the sounds of death screams coming from the eye socket of the skull in the mountains. “Just keep shooting at the eyes. I’ll take aim at that blue light heading for us.”
Johnny holstered his pistol and retrieved the rifle from its sheath. He took careful aim at the center of the blue light which bore down on them with alarming speed. Bang! Bang! Still it came rushing toward them. He reloaded as Jesse continued to fire around them at the eyes closing in.
“Johnny, look out,” Jesse screamed.
The blue light engulfed him and he came face to face with an Indian shaman, arms outstretched, howling to the heavens. He could see his breath as the figure passed through him and grew larger to shield both he and Jesse. He closed his eyes and reached for her hand and felt her take it and give it a squeeze.
Then it was still.
He opened one eye, then the other. The blue light had vanished as had the golden eyes. The only sound was his heart thumping and horse breathing. He felt Jesse’s hand slide from his grip and he turned towards her. He watched her take a deep breath and survey their surroundings finally meeting his eyes.
She pursed her lips, made a tsk sound and pointed to his saddlebag. “Tequila. Please.”
Johnny reached for the bottle, took a quick drink and handed it to Jesse.
After drinking deeply, she handed the bottle back to him and said, “Next time I say we avoid something, let’s avoid it,”
“Yeah, next time.”
The Urraca Mesa, located in New Mexico, is known for the highest number of lightning strikes per year in the whole state. In addition, compasses don’t work correctly there potentially due to the high content of iron or lodestone in the cap of the mesa. Maps of the mesa, on the western edge, show the aspect of a skull with a slight indent where the eye would be. Long before European settlers ever arrived in the area, an ancient people called the Anasazi settled there. For generations, they lived and died in the area. Then, about 900 years ago, they suddenly vanished. Archeologists have discovered hints that their demise was sudden and extremely violent. Some evidence suggests that many people were tortured. The Navajo, who settled the area long after the Anasazi disappeared, began to sense evil spirits among the rocks, rivers and trees. Slowly, they tracked the spirits to Urraca Mesa, where they believe the eye in the skull area is a gateway to the demon world. Navajo Medicine Men have studied the petroglyphs and lore of the area and have come to the conclusion that a huge battle was fought atop the mesa between the Anasazi and the forces of darkness. The entire tribe entered the gateway to force back the evil spirits, while the most powerful shaman sealed the gateway with four (or six) powerful cat totems. It is said that when the last of the cat totems fall or vanish, the gateway will reopen and hell on earth will be unleashed. Today, only two of the cat totems remain standing – the others have disappeared. Visitors have had some unusual experiences, including creatures following them, strange voices and an eerie sensation of being watched or followed. Many people have seen a large blue ball of light floating over the mesa. When the ball of light is approached, many claim to see the figure of a Native American shaman who, it is believed, still guards the portal.