The cowboy and the skinwalker
Cowgirl Sass & Savvy by Julie Carter
It happened on a high desert ranch in Navajo country.
The mesa lands surrounded the canyons and the cedar-covered hillsides and all were painted in layers of bold colors.
The day wore a hushed stillness broken by the occasional flapping sound of a crow on the wing.
A lone cowboy was checking cattle, riding along at a slow trot when a movement caught his eye.
Across the canyon, very deep and wide, he could see a man walking. He pulled his horse to a stop, squinting to make sure of what he was seeing.
In the distance, he could see what he knew to be an Indian dressed in the traditional animal-hide apparel of a century ago.
The fact that the Indian was afoot so far from civilization raised a curiosity in the cowboy.
He navigated his way across the canyon in one of the few places that it could be crossed. There he found some old cliff dwellings and "picture rocks," bringing him to the thought that perhaps the Indian had been praying there in an ancient place of worship.
The cowboy looked around but the man seemed to have disappeared. He rode to the spot where he saw him from across the canyon and found not the man, but where he had been sitting, along with another curious sight.
Hanging on a large cedar, like ornaments on a Christmas tree, were little figurines made of grass and bound with string. One of them, swaying only slightly in a non-existent breeze, was quite clearly a man on a horse.
A cold shiver went down his spine. He shook it off and began to look around for signs of the man he'd seen.
He found the Indian's tracks and followed them for a short distance. They all but disappeared in the rocks so he circled the area looking for more tracks.
All he could find were the tracks of several coyotes.
"I figured he was hiding in the huge cracks in the rocks so as not to be bothered," the cowboy related in telling the tale "So I rode away respectfully, crossed back over the canyon and went on to finish my day's work."
The next night, the cowboy was joined in camp by a Navajo friend of his named Bobby. They sat by the fire and over coffee, the cowboy told Bobby about what he had seen the day before.
Even in the dim firelight, the cowboy could see Bobby's deep brown skin turn very pale.
He was visibly spooked when he asked the cowboy if he believed in witches and demons or devils.
The cowboy, without hesitation, replied a simple, "No."
Bobby, his voice shaking, began to tell the cowboy about skinwalkers. Although they are most frequently seen as a coyote, wolf, owl, fox, or crow, the yee naaldlooshii is said to have the power to assume the form of any animal they choose, depending on what kind of abilities they need.
Some Navajo also believe that skinwalkers have the ability to steal the "skin" or body of a person.
The Navajo believe that if you lock eyes with a skinwalker they can absorb themselves into your body.
Bobby told the cowboy that his lack of belief in bad spirits made his soul too strong for the skinwalker.
"The little doll on the horse that was hanging in the tree was the tool he made to call you over to his side of the canyon," Bobby told him. "When you lost his tracks, then found several sets of coyote tracks, it was him and his clan leaving when he couldn't enter your body.
"Only one of them will change shape and be seen," said Bobby. "That's why you only saw one man. They didn't want you to feel outnumbered. Stay away from them, and they'll move on."
The legend of skinwalkers comes with many stories and warnings, all common with their elements of evil and elusiveness that are magnified by the dark of night.
But there is one cowboy that knows what he saw in broad daylight.
Never again did he ride the desert canyon lands without feeling there were many eyes upon him.
Julie can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org or at her website at www.julie-carter.com