Starsky was cautious as he snuck through the back door of the ranch house. Beretta drawn, he moved carefully between rooms to assure himself that he was truly alone. Noting there was a telephone next to the sofa, he passed it by in preference for the radio. If he could find a clear frequency, he knew that would expedite things exponentially.
Running out the front door and down the steps, Starsky jumped into the Torino and reached for the radio. "Signal 13, signal13," Starsky began. "This is Zebra 3 of Bay City. Requesting urgent back-up for two out-of-county officers. Can anyone hear me? Over." Starsky released the call button and waited, praying that someone would hear him. After pausing for at least thirty seconds, he tried again. "Signal 13, signal 13 - can you hear me? Over." He was about to try for a third time when the radio crackled to life instead.
"Zebra 3, this is San Bernadino County. We can hear you. What is your situation? Over."
Thrilled with making contact with the local authorities, Starsky quickly explained the circumstances and outlined their general location. With his need for assistance granted, it wasn't long before he was talking directly to the county sheriff.
"Sergeant Starsky?" the sheriff asked. "Well, well, well - so we meet again." Surprised, it took Starsky a few moments to realize that he was talking to Sheriff Jacobs, a man he had become acquainted with the previous year. The two had met when Hutch had gone missing and was rescued nearly a hundred miles away in Sheriff Jacob's county. Mildly embarrassed, Starsky hadn't realized they were still in San Bernadino's boundaries.
Sheriff Jacobs was a man with sharp instincts and a knack for understanding something useful when he heard it. In the interest of saving time, he listened intently as Starsky explained the situation. It didn't take long for Jacobs to realize that Detective Starsky was offering him the strongest lead they'd had to date on a burglary ring his department had been chasing for months. "I know exactly where you are," Jacobs said, growing more excited. "And Sergeant - I can't tell you how much this would mean to the entire community if we could nail these guys."
"I understand, Sir," Starsky said. "Hutch and I are happy to help, but I need to warn you that we do have one civilian with us. It's because of his help that we've been able to locate the stolen property. Hutch and I will do all we can to protect him, but the sooner we get him out of here, the better.
"Understood. Starsky, I want you to wait for us inside the house," Jacobs ordered. "My deputies and I can be there in about twenty minutes. And Sergeant, I'll update your Captain about this situation. I know Harold Dobey would want to know what his detectives are up to."
Oh, terrific! Starsky thought, remembering the look of exasperation on Dobey's face just before the man all but threw them out of his office. "Great," Starsky choked out instead, imagining the look of panic on Hutch's face if he could have been part of the same conversation. "Actually, it would help a lot if you could update Dobey for us," Starsky said, deciding to play along. "As I mentioned earlier, we've been away from the department for a few days."
"I'll see you shortly," Jacobs said. "And thank you again. Now get inside the house and wait for us."
"Yes, Sir," Starsky replied.
Hutch turned his attention to the hills behind him, wondering not for the first time what might lay beyond. For some reason, he suspected the view from the top might be potentially informative. If he was going to find out, he had to move fast. It would be sundown in little more than an hour. "Adriel, do you have any idea what's south of here?" Hutch asked, pointing to the tall, sandy bluff that loomed behind them. Adriel shrugged his shoulders as he considered the question. "As I said earlier - a lot of sand and wide-open desert. Beyond that, I can't say I've had a reason to go out there in years."
"I'd like to take a look before it gets dark. I don't want to go far - just up to the top of that bluff so I can see what's behind us."
"Alright, but I wouldn't try to climb it from here," Adriel suggested. "There's a trail around the corner behind that last cave we were in. It would be a lot easier if you go that way."
"Sounds good," Hutch said, hauling himself to his feet. Locating the trail, Hutch proceeded to throw himself into the climb. It didn't take long before he knew that Adriel had been right about the terrain. There was just enough hard pack underfoot to make getting to the top a whole lot easier. Though his quadriceps were starting to burn by the time he reached the summit, the climb had required less effort than he'd expected. A little out of breath nonetheless, Hutch paused to gather his wits and gain control of his breathing.
Damn, maybe I need to cut down on the beer, Hutch thought. Yeah, like hell that'll happen, he concluded, straightening to his full height.
Peering south, Hutch narrowed his eyes and struggled to see across the desert. The uneven ground was broken by an occasional outcropping of rocky, basaltic soil, and a few stray saguaro cacti. There was no sign of anything man-made. Beyond that, Adriel was right. There really wasn't much to see. Turning his attention west, Hutch could barely make out the ranch house - the small, red blotch beside it suggested that the Torino was still parked where they'd left it. In Hutch's estimation, Starsky had been gone long enough to have tried both the phone and the car radio. As the Torino didn't appear to have moved, Hutch was hoping that meant Starsky had been successful in getting through to someone.
Hutch's eyes lingered on the house hoping for a glimpse of his partner. When none was forthcoming, he tried to contain his worry by envisioning what Starsky might be doing.
He's probably looking for something to eat, Hutch thought, the idea causing him to smile fondly. Come to think of it, I wouldn't pass up the chance to eat something either. It's been a long time since breakfast.
A welcome breeze brushed the back of his neck, causing the sweat to cool and stick to his skin. If not for the circumstances that had brought him here, Hutch would have lingered for the view alone. The sun had dropped low on the horizon, sending colors of bright light across the landscape that weren't seen any other time of the day. As yellow faded to shades of orange on the periphery, Hutch watched in fascination as the burst of color stretched as far as he could see. "A sunset like this one, Starsk," Hutch whispered, remembering his pact with his partner. "We need to find another sunset like this one."
Hutch was turning to go when he noticed the outline of a dark silhouette standing on the other end of the dune. Knowing he had walked the same trail only minutes earlier, Hutch did not understand at first what he was looking at. As the silhouette turned to face him, the bottom dropped out of his stomach. Standing thirty feet away was the replicated image of the petroglyph that had appeared to him the day before - a version of the dreaded Skinwalker that Adriel had warned them about.
A cold sweat erupted on his neck and chest as Hutch studied the image staring back at him from the opposite end of the sand dune. The logical side of his brain demanded an explanation while the practical side knew he might be in danger. Reaching for his Magnum, Hutch realized too late that he'd left it at the bottom of the hill. Swallowing hard, he steeled himself as the Skinwalker began to advance. Regathering his wits, Hutch forced himself to analyze his adversary properly.
The Skinwalker presented itself as the outline of a man's body from what Hutch could see - a little taller than himself with long, well-muscled arms. Dressed in snug leggings, the figure was bare-chested with an assortment of animal pelts draped around his shoulders. Hutch winced when he noted the hunting knife sheathed in a scabbard and secured to the waist. A black bandana covered most of the scalp while partially obscuring the man's eyes. "You cops are all alike," came a deep, gravelly voice. "None of you know when to mind your own damn business."
Hutch's eyebrows lifted in surprise at the unexpected comment. Whoever this guy was, he obviously hated cops. Hutch considered trying to distract him with words but decided it would be a waste of time. He was considering how to make a break for it when the other man charged him instead.
Yanking the knife from its scabbard, the Skinwalker raised the blade high overhead as he ran. Hutch was running for the edge of the sand dune when he stumbled on a piece of sagebrush root and fell. Landing hard on his stomach, he rolled to his back just as his assailant landed on top of him. Catching the knife blade in mid-air, Hutch managed to hold him off long enough to land a knee in the man's crotch. Screaming in pain, the man tumbled sideways over the edge of the dune, taking Hutch with him. Wrestling with the knife between them, they traded places - tumbling over and over multiple times on their way to the bottom of the hill. Landing hard, the man was pressing the blade to Hutch's throat when the sound of a gunshot cut through the air. Collapsing on top of Hutch, the man dropped the knife and grabbed for the bullet hole in his thigh instead.
Pushing the wounded man away, Hutch kicked the knife free and hurriedly moved out from under him. As the other man lay writhing in place, Hutch looked around frantically, assuming the shot had come from Starsky. He found Adriel holding a hot handgun instead. Realizing then what had happened, Hutch climbed to his feet and hurried to the younger man's side. "Adriel, are you alright?" Hutch asked, reaching for the gun. The sound of Hutch's voice immediately brought Adriel back to his senses. Releasing his grip on the gun, he looked shaken but otherwise unhurt. "I'm ok, but look at you," Adriel said. Unsure what Adriel meant, Hutch was surprised to see a stream of fresh blood soaking through his shirt sleeve and dripping down his right arm.
"All of that rolling around must have opened the cut on my arm," Hutch speculated. "Hey, I'm alright," he offered, patting Adriel on the shoulder. "I swear, the knife didn't touch me." Hutch was turning toward the man on the ground just as Starsky rounded the corner with several other officers in tow. Just knowing the cavalry had, at last, arrived allowed Hutch to give in to his fatigue and sit back down. "Take care of him," Hutch said, pointing to the man who'd been shot.
Starsky allowed the others to do just that as he landed on his knees next to Hutch. The sight of dirty ripped clothing along with a copious amount of fresh blood had frightened Starsky to the core. "What happened?" he asked, reaching for Hutch's arm.
"He was in a fight," Adriel offered, filling in the details that Hutch might have omitted. "It started at the top of the hill when the guy came out of nowhere and jumped Hutch. They fought over the knife as they rolled downhill - and that's when I shot him."
"That's right," Hutch agreed, noting the look of surprise on Starsky's face. "Without a doubt, Starsk, this guy saved my hide."
"No kidding!" Starsky exclaimed. "Well, I'd say you deserve a commendation, young man!"
Adriel looked nonplussed as he thought about what Starsky had said. "Oh, I don't know," Adriel said, looking almost bashful for the first time since they'd met. "I'd say I had a whole lot of help. I think the One we needed the most heard my prayers after all."
The man Adriel shot turned out to be a key player in a burglary ring that had terrorized the rural communities around Victorville for months. By extorting a few of the deepest fears of Navajo traditions, a small group of men had managed to monopolize an entire population by using their ancestral legends against them. Convinced that a Skinwalker was living among them, people hid in their homes while they attempted to conduct their lives without becoming its next target. Law enforcement had been unable to get a bearing on exactly how they were operating until Adriel led them to the caves in the desert.
Four individuals were eventually arrested and charged with first-degree burglary and arson while a fifth recovered in the hospital. Once he was well enough, the would-be Skinwalker would join his friends in the county jail while they waited for their upcoming trials. He wouldn't have time to enjoy his prized, blue and white Buick for a long, long time. Although a number of stolen items had been lost to the black market, a sizeable amount of property was also returned to its rightful owners. Jacob Nez was able to keep his store open without fear of the future hanging over his head. Manuel's restaurant was planning a grand reopening at the end of the month.
Upon returning to Bay City, Dobey granted both Starsky and Hutch a full week off as Hutch had been injured, and they both wound up working for most of their impromptu time off. Although Dobey had planned to give them a proper scolding, he lost most of his bluster after visiting Hutch in the hospital. Hutch needed to be an inpatient for one night for the doctor to properly take care of his arm. The stubborn, hard-headed detective looked more exhausted and paler than usual lying in a bed composed of white sheets with a unit of blood hanging by his bedside. Dobey simply didn't have the heart to rake him over the coals for pushing the envelope where civilians were concerned.
As for Adriel, Hutch had arranged for a scholarship to the California Police Academy to be reserved in his name. When Adriel was ready, Starsky and Hutch, as well as Captain Dobey, were all willing to sponsor him. After confessing his interest in police work, Hutch had applied for the award for their new friend because he knew good police material when he saw it. Adriel would finish his Associate Degree at the community college in only a few weeks. Once he completed that step, he planned to enroll at the Academy. Starsky and Hutch would be there to applaud his achievements the day he graduated and beyond.
Although both detectives had come to accept the unusual appearance of the fierce, white owl as merely coincidental, Adriel would always see it differently. The great bird of Navajo legend symbolized instead the night that Ligai Naabaahil - the great White Warrior of his ancestors - returned as he'd promised to save them.
Finished - January 7, 2022