Riders of the Dust-Gray Steppe
(c)2007 Richard Wolkomir
Originally published in "Reflection's Edge" Magazine in November, 2008, this story blends aspects of ranchland western tales with a reimagined Ice Age.
I saw the witch first.
I sat on the constabulary porch, eating my musk-ox sandwich—we lived upstairs, my father and I.
Heavy clouds bellied down over Rime. Mist swirled. I made out only a gray shape loping in from the steppe, astride it another gray shape. But when they reached the street’s beginning, at Rime’s edge, I saw.
She rode a black dire wolf. Witch bred, it stood five times the size of dire wolves we knew, that yellow-eyed wolf. It would rip me open, if she let it.
She stopped at the porch. Steppe dust coated her trousers’ sloth leather and her mammoth-wool jacket. She leaned an arm on her saddle pommel, staring down at me, her eyes the color of smoke.
She said nothing.
So I said: “You don’t frighten me.”
She smiled, like winter.
“Who speaks for this town?” she said.
And then I did dread.
Because our mayor had driven his steamcar into the mountains, to barter with villagers there, our coal for timber. And because Blade Vendico—father of Jem, whom I wished to be—lived a half hour north, on his great musk-ox ranch. And who knew where on his nine-thousand acres Blade Vendico might be driving his steamtruck.
At her waist, sheathed, a wand.
“My father is constable here,” I said.
“Fetch him,” she said.
I hobbled up the stairs.
He sat at the table, staring at his sandwich, uneaten. He did not look at me. Since the steamcar’s boiler burst, he could not bear to look at me.
A wheezing old steamcar. That week, he had neglected to ream caked minerals from its valves.
It purpled my face’s right side. An iron shard severed my right leg below the knee, so I wore a spruce peg. The scalding killed my mother.
“A witch has come,” I told him.
He looked up, with nothing in his face. He sighed, finally, and stood. He belted on his holster, its ancient pistol never fired. He shambled to the stairs.
I followed him down to the porch. But what I could do, to help him against her, I did not know.
She still sat leaning on the pommel. Steppe dust made even grayer her graying blond hair, held back by a raven’s feather.
She studied my father, silent. I supposed she scorned his stringiness, and that he walked with his head bowed. He stood looking aside. Maybe he thought about his pistol in its holster.
Finally, he spoke.
“It has been thirty-eight years since witches came,” he said. “What are you wanting?”
After a disdainful silence, she spoke one word.
“Decency,” she said.
At that my father met her gaze.
“When witches last came through,” he said, “many of us died, which is written on the meetinghouse wall, and the cursing lasted a year.”
She made a sound like a mammoth’s low snort. But when she spoke, she only whispered.
“And why was that?”
My father looked down.
They stood like this a while. Then she spoke.
“We have a hurt one, and we need a dry place, warm, for her healing.”
My father seemed to struggle up from deep water, wearied by thrashing. But he looked at her.
“We have no empty place,” he said.
She looked at him, contemptuous, waiting.
“And no household here will take a witch,” my father said.
She sat upon her wolf, taking his measure. Finally she spoke, lifting her arm from the pommel to point at the constable’s office.
“And what of this?” she said.
My father, looking down, exhaled.
“Decency,” she said.
It sounded like a curse.
My father looked at the ground.
To himself, he mumbled: “…and then they will….”
She glared at him, chin up, anger on that hard face, and something else. It made me wish to touch her hand. Instead, I spoke.
“Father,” I said. “Our jail stands empty.”
He still looked at the ground.
I wanted him unbroken.
He looked, finally, at my spruce peg, and my purpled face. Moments passed. And then he looked at her.
She studied him. And me. Then she nodded.
She turned her wolf and rode back onto the steppe.
# # #
An hour later, as I swept the cell, and my father brought a fresh blanket for the cot, the office door banged open. Blade Vendico stomped in. After him came Jem.
“They say you’re letting a witch stop here,” Blade said.
“A hurt one,” my father said.
“They’ll bring their damned cats,” Blade said. “And their damned wands—no witches.”
“Just the one,” my father said.
Jem sat easily on the desk’s edge, watching. Five years older than my twelve years, already a man, he stood tall and lean and easy. Rime’s girls watched him, when he dashed his father’s steamtruck into town for bags of coal or flour. At the store, he skidded to stop a hair’s-breadth from the rail, and laughed.
“No witches,” Blade said.
“Just the hurt one,” my father said.
Blade made a fist, and glared at it.
My father said: “If we refuse them….”
“They’re down to nothing,” he said.
He put his big hands on my father’s desk and leaned forward, his broad face two inches from my father’s.
My father sat dull eyed. He seemed a man already dead, except for the killing.
“They’ve got no males left, those southern covens,” Blade said. “They’re only a handful now—thirty rifles, out the windows….”
My father looked at him, silent.
Blade spread his big hands.
“You think I’m rich,” he said. “But if those cats run loose in my herds, I’m ruined, and what I’ve built, it’s to go to him.”
Without looking, he pointed his thumb toward his son. And Jem, sitting at ease upon my father’s desktop, grinned at me, as if between us we had a joke. It pleased me. But he included me only because nobody better stood at hand.
Blade leaned again on the desk, staring at my father. But not bullying now.
“If you’ve quit on yourself,” he said, “think of him”
He meant me.
My father blinked. He did not speak.
Finally, he shook his head, my father, just barely. And he sighed.
Blade cursed. Turning, he jerked a thumb at Jem, to follow him. He walked out of the office, his boot heels hitting the floorboards hard. Jem walked behind him, easy. A moment later I heard their steamtruck’s doors slam. And then its hiss receded up the street.
# # #
When my father went to parley with the witch, I hobbled beside him. We stopped at Rime’s south edge, at the coal pit. Diggers leaned on their picks, peering over the pit’s rim. And behind us Rime’s people clustered in the street to watch. But they stood far back.
After a while the mistress witch rode up from the south, on her black wolf. Behind her came the scimitar cats, raising a dust cloud, snarling. I counted fourteen—old stories spoke of hundred-cat herds. Four witches on dire wolves herded the cats, none young. One more witch rode a mammoth, pulling a wagon for food and gear. And yet another of these aging witches pulled behind her wolf a travois, upon which lay the hurt witch, wrapped in a blanket.
They stopped near Rime’s edge. I saw the riders aiming their wands and waving them, to quiet the cats. Then the mistress witch rode forward, to where my father and I stood.
“One thing more,” the witch said. “It is why we came here—you dig black stone from the earth.”
“Coal?” my father said.
“We require a black stone,” she said. “We will pay.”
My father looked at her. Then he walked to the pit’s edge. He reached down, picked up a black lump, and walked back. He handed it to her.
“A gift from us to you,” he said, shrugging.
She reached out and took it, implacable. But I saw she suppressed surprise, that something she thought so valuable, for which we might fight, we handed over as worthless.
“No cats in the town,” my father said. “Or marauding the ranches around.”
“We keep the cats checked,” the witch said.
“You must all surrender your wands,” my father said.
She sat on her wolf, face unreadable.
“Only the hurt one, and I, will enter the town,” she said.
“Your witches must give up your wands while you are near us,” my father said.
Her gray eyes hardened.
“And them,” she said, indicating with her chin the townspeople crowded in the street. “They will be giving up those rifles and pistols I see them holding?”
My father squinted back up the street. I saw him consider.
“They know of the last witch visit—those are for their protection,” my father said.
She pulled her wand from its sheath, held it pointing toward the sky.
“And we, too, remember the last witch visit,” she said. “These are for our protection.”
They regarded each other.
“You need the wands to calm the cats?” my father asked.
She dipped her chin, once.
“Then, in the town, you must give up your wands, you and the hurt one.”
She sat regarding him. In her gray eyes, I saw a darkening. Silence stretched out between us.
Finally she nodded.
# # #
I guessed her sixteen, the hurt witch.
She lay upon the cell’s cot. Her eyes opened just once. She saw, I thought, my father and me. Blue, those eyes, like the zenith. But she shut them again and so they stayed.
She lay near death, her blond hair spread on the pillow. Her body breathed, but she had receded from it, her face empty. I never saw a face so beautiful.
“Warmer,” the mistress witch said.
My father shoveled more coal into the stove. I saw her look at that shoveling of coal, aghast, as if we squandered things of infinite value. But she turned her attention back to the girl, and to the lump of coal cupped in her own two hands.
She studied the coal. Then she closed her eyes. I saw her lips move, as if she silently mouthed words. Then the large lump of coal she held became five small pieces.
Two pieces she rested on in the hurt girl’s listless palms, lying upon the cot. Two she squeezed between the girl’s toes, one for each naked foot. One piece she balanced upon the girl’s forehead.
“Warmer,” she said.
I shoveled more coal into the stove.
So we were a while. On her cot the girl lay. Perhaps she dreamed. Bending over her, the mistress witch mouthed words. My father and I stood aside, watching. Once again the girl’s eyes opened. She looked at the mistress witch.
“Mother,” she said.
Then her eyes closed again. I felt her drifting away. Now the mistress witch hung her head to look at the floor. But after a moment she looked again at the girl’s face, and resumed mouthing words we could not hear.
Outside, we saw the faces of townspeople looking through the office’s windows, for a glimpse into the cell. Then the door opened and Jem Vendico walked in. He spoke to my father.
“He’s herding our musk oxen into corrals, because he worries the cats will run loose,” Jem said. “He wants to hear, how long before they’re gone.”
And then he saw the girl on the cot.
He could not look away.
We stood like that. Finally the mistress witch looked up.
“She fails,” she said.
We did not know what to say.
“One thing more we need,” she said. “A young one, a girl just become a woman.”
“To do what?” my father said. “To be hurt in turn?”
“No,” the witch said. “Only to give a little life, just a drop, because she has so much, to one who has almost none left.”
“No mother or father in this town will give a daughter for this,” my father said.
“Then a young man,” the witch said.
And I said: “Me.”
She looked at me. I could not read her expression. But she said: “You are too young.”
Jem, his eyes still on the hurt girl, now spoke.
“I’ll do it,” he said.
She studied him, the mistress witch. She frowned.
My father said: “Blade….”
But Jem, without looking away from the girl, flicked his hand, as if not caring what Blade Vendico might say. He stared at that beautiful vacant face.
Finally the mistress witch, still studying Jem, sighed.
“You, then,” she said.
She had Jem sit beside the cot. With red twine pulled from her pocket, she lightly tied Jem’s forearm to the girl’s forearm.
“Do not move, try not to,” she told him. “Think of what makes your blood rush.”
“Racing the steamtruck across the steppe, faster and faster,” he said. “And this girl’s face.”
“Think of the steamtruck,” she said.
# # #
For two hours she had him sit like that, forearm to forearm with the girl. And then she sent him home.
“Come back tomorrow morning,” she said.
And in the morning he did return.
Once more he sat beside the cot, tied to the girl with twine the red of blood. I watched them, wishing it could be me beside the girl. And the mistress witch sat with her eyes shut. Her lips moved.
After an hour the bitten girl opened her eyes. She looked at Jem. He laughed. And he reached out his free hand to touch her forehead. Now the mistress witch exhaled, and slumped.
“Mother,” the girl said, “I am sick….”
“You will heal,” the mistress witch said.
And to Jem, bitter sounding, she said: “Tell your father, who fears our cats and hates us—two more days.”
That afternoon I stood alone in the cell with the witch girl. She sat up on the cot now, looking weak. But her tanned cheeks had pink in them.
“Where do you go with your cats?” I asked, because I wanted to hear her speaking to me.
She expelled her breath, sharply.
“Oh, we go to see if covens remain in the northern mountains,” she said.
“And the cats?” I asked.
She glared at me.
“Husband price,” she said.
“Are you angry, because I ask questions?” I said.
She rested a weak hand on the back of my hand.
“I am angry to be bartered for breeding,” she said. “By old women.”
Be glad to have a mother, I thought to say. But I did not say it.
“Why do you keep the scimitar cats?” I asked.
She frowned, thinking. Then she shook her head.
“It cannot be explained,” she said. “You have no words for the cats, their powers, and you could never understand our words, except if I say there is magic in the cats—not in the dire wolves, but in the scimitar cats.”
At that, I felt I looked at her across a deep chasm, too wide to cross.
She lay back on her pillow. She closed her eyes, nearly asleep.
“When is Jem coming?” she asked.
# # #
When I came into the jail, I might find them alone, sitting silent. Tied forearm to forearm by that blood-red cord, they gazed at each other. Sometimes they spoke together, in low voices.
“…and I won’t abide it….”
So I heard her say once.
And another time I came in as Jem spoke.
“…because there’re other towns than Rime,” he told her. “And people there, what would they know?”
But they saw me and fell silent.
At the second morning’s end, after they sat entwined together two hours, the mistress witch untied them. She put her two forefingers upon the girl’s temples, and seemed to listen. Then she nodded.
“It is over,” she said. “Rest here today, and this evening we’ll start again driving the cats north.”
But the girl did not respond. Instead, she and Jem exchanged a look. I wished I were older. And I wished I were whole.
# # #
That afternoon I went with my father to visit the mayor. He had summoned my father because of the exchange with the mountain towns—coal for timber. Whose steamtrucks would carry the coal—that needed to be worked out. And sleeping places for the mountain men hauling in their timber. I sat on the porch, chin in hands, looking out at the steppe. To the north, I saw dust.
At first it seemed just a puff, far out. But it grew, a man upon a galloping horse. Finally I saw it to be Blade Vendico, face red and set. He saw me and reined in his horse, which snorted after its hard run.
“Where’s Jem, with the steamtruck?” he said.
“I haven’t seen him,” I said. “Is he at the jail with the witch girl?”
“Took his clothes,” Blade said.
Cursing, he spurred his horse and galloped on into town.
# # #
When my father and I returned, townspeople filled the street in front of the jail. Most carried pistols or rifles. They muttered, a sound like the scimitar cats’ snarls. At their center stood Blade Vendico, his face now white. At his feet lay Jem.
No wildness remained in that body—his left arm angled unnaturally. His forehead, bashed, glistened red.
“What did this?” my father asked.
“She lured him away, in the steamtruck,” Blade said. “She cursed it.”
His voice hissed, like a steam engine building pressure.
“Out on the steppe?” my father said. “A crash?”
“She cursed it, to turn over,” Blade said.
At that, the crowd muttered.
My father stood looking down. He wore his holster with the ancient pistol, never fired. I wanted to put my arms around him, to beg.
“I’ll speak to them,” my father said.
He unholstered his own pistol. He put it close to his eyes, checking the cartridges.
“Let me do this,” my father said.
Blade, not answering, glared past my father out to the steppe. I looked where he looked, and I saw the witches coming—they rode their dire wolves toward us, side-by-side. Behind them came their cats. And, behind the cats, that great mammoth, with a witch on its back, pulling their wagon. At the center of the line of witches rode the mistress witch. Her wolf pulled the travois.
My father now stepped in front of the crowd. He raised his arms, motioning the crowd to stay back. Then he walked toward the witches.
I ran to catch up, to walk at his side. He motioned me back. But I hobbled after him.
At Rime’s edge, my father stopped, waiting.
They reined at my father’s feet, close enough for their wolves to reach out their necks and open their jaws and eviscerate him. Erect upon her black wolf, the mistress witch stared at my father, her face like stone. With her chin, she indicated the travois her wolf pulled.
“Dead,” she said.
My father’s head sunk. I wished to clutch his arm, pull him away. But I only stood.
“How?” my father asked.
Now the witch’s ice eyes settled upon Blade Vendico. He—face white, fury in his eyes—glared back.
“That one’s son,” the witch said. “He abducted my daughter….”
I saw that she held her wand. Each witch held her wand.
Thin, my father looked, his cuffs ragged. He kept his thumbs in his shirt’s pockets, I suppose to show he would not draw his pistol. Maybe that ancient pistol no longer even shot.
“An accident,” my father said. “Driving too fast, on the steppe…now both those children….”
From close behind, Blade Vendico’s voice: “That witch girl wrecked it—a cursing!”
He held his pistol in his right hand, by his side. I suppose he saw each witch held a wand. I suppose he did not care.
“Oh, yes,” whispered the mistress witch. “There will be a cursing.”
Now all went silent, except for the dire wolves’ panting and cat snarls and the mammoth’s feet heavily shuffling. Suddenly the witch’s eyes sharpened. My father saw, turned: behind us, Blade had his pistol up, aimed at the witch.
“No!” my father said.
He raised his arms, stepped between Blade and the mistress witch. But I saw: Blade’s finger already squeezed the trigger.
My father’s shirt turned red. He stepped backward, looking at Blade. He started to speak. But then he toppled onto his back. He made a thud that sounded like death.
It seemed the world stopped. I felt I could not move.
Blade looked at my father, lying on the ground, his shirt red. He laid back his head and howled.
She had her wand aimed, that mistress witch. Face like stone. Lips moving. Blade’s pistol jerked from his hand, flew. High up, it hung in the air. Its barrel slowly twisted, knotted. Then the pistol flared red, and was gone, except for red smoke. And, in that smoke, the killed witch girl’s face.
It faded away.
Blade never saw. He stood staring at my father, lying on the ground on his back, his shirt red, glistening. He did not look up to see the witch’s ice eyes. She pointed her wand at him.
“No,” I said.
I stepped between them, the mistress witch and Blade Vendico. I looked into the witch’s gray eyes. I held up my arms, as my father had done.
“Decency,” I said.
I felt that winter stare. But I looked at my father, lying on his back. And I held up my arms.
I never saw the witch lower her wand. But then I saw it holstered.
She looked at Blade Vendico. He stood behind me, staring at her, face white, although not with fear. It seemed to me she nodded at him. Whether he nodded, I did not see. But I lowered my arms.
Now the mistress witch signaled to the others, jerking up her chin. They started forward, side-by-side. I stood looking at my dead father. Blade Vendico stood beside me. He, too, looked at my father. I felt the wolves’ fur brush past me. On the wolves’ breath I smelled meat.
Now the scimitar cats padded past. Their ferocity felt like heat. I feared they might paw my father’s body. But they only snarled, a low sound, like coughing. Then the mammoth lumbered by. Its footsteps shook the ground.
Before them, the crowd of townspeople wavered. Then, as the witches rode their dire wolves up the street, Rime’s people ran.
When I finally turned from looking at my dead father, I saw them already receding across the steppe to the north, throwing up dust. I watched them become a dust puff on the horizon. Blade Vendico watched, too.
His eyes looked red, watery. He looked broken.
“Live in the ranch, with me,” he said. “If you want.”
# # #
We go to Rime’s old burying ground at the week’s end, after watering the musk oxen, and pitching them hay. We leave the hired man to watch them.
Jem lies beside his mother, who died giving birth to him. On the wooden marker, Blade had carved: “Jem Vendico—A Wild Boy.”
My father I’d buried next to my mother. On his marker I carved only his name, and under it one word: “Decency.”
Other days we herd the muskoxen, Blade and I. From chewed-over patches of steppe, we move them to greener places. We ride horses. He never bought another steamtruck.
Often, as we ride, I squint northward. But I’ve never seen the witches returning.
I suppose I never will.
(c)2007 Richard Wolkomir