The Bull Riding Witch
Author's Note: "The Bull Riding Witch" was originally published in Short-Story.me. January 2011. It was reprinted in Urban Fantasy (KYStory, 2013) and my short story collection, Blood Cursed and Other Tales of the Fantasy. Get an ecopy of these collection for free by signing up for my newsletter. Form is to the left.
I remember little of my life before I woke up with a raging hangover and inside a body I knew wasn’t mine. But you try explaining to people that you’re a woman trapped in a man’s body. See how far that gets you, especially when you’re a bull rider.
I have a rodeo in Lafayette tonight, so I’m trying to get ready. Not an easy feat if you’ve ever seen my trailer. I find my western shirt and jeans easily enough, but my belt is buried somewhere in the goddess awful mess. You’d think with its huge buckle I could find it, but everything that isn’t covered by frozen pizza boxes and empty beer cans is stacked two feet to three feet high with books—Jim Butcher, Barbara Hambly, Mercedes Lackey, Parallel Universes, Guide to the Supernatural for Dummies. Unfortunately, the books have proven about as useful as the pizza boxes in explaining what happened to me. But somebody, somewhere has to be able to tell me how I got stuck in Josh Killenyen’s body and, more importantly, how to get back into my own.
There is a knock on my trailer door, and I open it. Mr. McGillihan is standing there. In exchange for odd jobs, Uncle Gilly—as everyone calls him, although to my knowledge he’s nobody’s uncle—lets me keep my trailer on his land and pays me a pittance. About enough to keep the insurance current on my truck. Insurance for myself is impossibly expensive since my profession tends to include a lot of injuries.
“Horse. Colic.” Uncle Gilly nods toward the barn. He rarely speaks an entire sentence.
I follow Uncle Gilly into the nearby barn. When I enter, I feel a crushing pain in my gut. Wild Girl is rolling her eyes, snorting and groaning. Her gut feels just like mine, and let me tell you, it isn’t pleasant. Colic is one of the most painful and dangerous things that can happen to a horse. I approach carefully because a colicky horse doesn’t pay much attention to its surroundings and can step on you without even realizing you’re there. I touch her, and she instantly calms. I kneel next to her and put my hands on her gut. I close my eyes and reach inside Wild Girl’s intestines with my magic. They’re blocked all right. Uncle Gilly must have bought a finer grade of grain because it’s packed her insides up tight. I work on loosening it up and moving it along the intestines. Wild Girl lets out an immense fart and then poops out a huge pile of . . . well, you know.
I straighten, both my guts and Wild Girl’s feeling a ton better. “She’s fine now, Boss,” I tell Uncle Gilly.
“Good.” He nods and walks away. Neither of us has ever said the word aloud, but Uncle Gilly knows about my magic. He figured it out about a year ago when one of the barn cats got hit by his truck. Nothing human could’ve saved the poor thing, but I did. Ever since then, he comes to me every time one of his animals has a problem. With all I save him in vet bills, you’d think he could pay me a little more.
It’s probably because of my magic that someone didn’t want me around, and they could hardly have picked a bigger loser to put me inside. At twenty-three Josh has never had a job, except occasional farm work and bull riding. Good thing he was decent at it, and I’m better than he was.
As I clean up after Wild Girl, I try for the thousandth time to think who might have done this to me, but I can’t even remember my own name. I do remember that things are different where I come from. There are no trucks or computers or electric can openers. But magic and magical creatures—like dragons and trolls—are common. I think it’s one of these parallel realms things that Hamby and some of the others write about, except they got it wrong. According to their theories, my magic shouldn’t work in this world, but it does. I got the skills of my own body and Josh’s as well. I didn’t need to learn how to drive a truck or read, write, and speak English. Most of Josh’s memories came with his body, too, but few of my own. Does Josh have my magic in my body? Have my enemies completely eliminated him, and I have no body to go back to? Being stuck inside Josh Killenyen forever isn’t a pleasant thought.
I go back to my trailer and finally find my belt under Dragon Riders of Pern and Spells for the Clueless and Inept. I grab my new hat, which I bought with last week’s prize money. Cost me pretty near all of it, but a proper cowboy needs a proper hat. Sometimes I find myself thinking like Josh Killenyen, and it scares me.
I get in my truck with its camper shell on back and start the three-hour drive from Hamilton on the west side of Alabama to Lafayette on the east. I’ll sleep in the back tonight like I usually do for the two-day rodeos; I can’t afford the price of a motel.
* * *
At the rodeo grounds in Lafayette, I drink in the scents of roasting corn, chicken-on-a-stick, and cotton candy. It’s exhilarating because it means shortly I’ll be having a brief, but wild ride. Nothing compares to the adrenaline rush of being on the back of a bucking bull. I wonder if in my other body I was addicted to adrenaline or if that came with Josh’s body as well. On my way to the arena, I pass a booth that sells T-shirts. I spot one that says, “Cowboys make bad lovers. They think 8-seconds is a long ride.” I laugh. Whoever wrote that has never been on the back of a bucking bull. Eight seconds is a long ride.
When I get to the staging area, I check what bull Josh has drawn—Man Killer. I smile; Man Killer is about the fiercest bucker on the circuit, and if I’m going to win tonight, I need a good bull. After all, half my score is based on just how hard a time the bull gives me.
From the staging area, I watch the rodeo. Fortunately, I came late enough that I missed the girls riding around with their flags to the sound of patriotic music while the announcer talks about God, America, and Dodge trucks. Rodeo people seem to worship all three with equal reverence. While I watch, I attune myself to my magic so I can be ready to ride.
Finally, it’s time for the bull riding. I climb onto the launch chute, then onto Man Killer’s back. He snorts, and I don’t try to calm him. That was the mistake I made when I first became Josh. Instead, I reach into him until I become one with the bull, making it possible for me to match all the bull’s movements like I was born on the back of a bucking bull.
I nod, and the chute opens. Man Killer roars into the arena. We’re giving them quite a show when something hits my hand and I suddenly let go. I fly off and hit the ground, knocking the wind out of me. The bull’s hoofs crash down inches from my head before the rodeo clowns are able to distract the beast. I run for the fence, vault over it, and stand there panting.
“What happened, man?” Dan, the closest thing to a friend Josh has, asks.
“I don’t know.” I shake my head, but I do know. Someone just used magic to try and kill me. I turn every which way looking for the witch, but of course, there’s no one wearing a pointy black hat. I close my eyes and reach out with my magic, and I feel something, across the arena in the third set of bleachers. I tear off. Halfway there I come to my senses and stop. Charging down an unknown witch wouldn’t be the brightest thing Josh ever did. Before I can decide what to do, I lose the witch’s scent. I close my eyes to try to pick it up again, but I feel nothing. Still, I wait, and I only go into the back of my truck when the lights have been turned off and nobody’s wandering around.
When I curl up in my sleeping bag, I start shaking. I see again the bull’s hoofs coming down inches from my head. I feel the ground tremble underneath with the impact. I’m damned lucky to be alive. I don’t know if I dare ride tomorrow, but if I don’t, I’ll barely have gas money to get back to Hamilton, and I’ll have to beg Uncle Gilly for an advance on my wages to buy groceries.
What little sleep I get that night is full of dreams that nearly make me vomit. You picture the effect an 1800-pound bull would have on the human head. Not pretty, is it?
* * *
I spend all the next day prowling the rodeo grounds. I haven’t a clue what I’m searching for, and I don’t find any neon sign that says, “Witch will sit here tonight.” When the gates open, I stand near them with my eyes closed, trying to sense everyone who comes in. The sensations of that many minds about causes me to lose what few marbles the fall yesterday didn’t knock out of me, but I don’t sense any magic.
When it’s time for the bull riding, I decide to chance it. I really need the money, but tonight I’ve drawn a bull named He-man—you know, from that stupid Masters of the Universe cartoon—but he should probably be named Daisy-Muncher. I haven’t a chance to win on that bull unless everybody else falls off. Dan Foster scores an eighty-three, and Ben Walker, a man I can’t stand, scores an eighty-five and ends up with top prize money of eight hundred and seventy-five dollars. Nothing weird happens when I ride, but I score a whopping sixty-five and end with a whole sixty-six dollars in prize money. I guess I’ll live on ramen noodles for the next week. You can survive on that, but a man ought to have meat.
I freeze. I just thought of myself as a man again. Am I completely losing touch with who I am? I almost want to cry, but then I remember men don’t cry.
After a week on ramen noodles, I’m so mad I want to beat the living you-know-what out of the witch who made me lose. You might think that nearly dying should have aggravated me more than eating noodles, and yes, I still have nightmares about that bull’s hoofs. But I’m hungry for something different to eat. I’m nervous as hell about the upcoming rodeo in Robertsdale, down by Mobile, and that makes me mad, too. I nurse the anger all during the five-and-a-half hour drive, fantasizing about what I’ll do to the witch when I find her.
I win the bull riding in Friday night’s rodeo for a whopping $615. Robertsdale’s purse has always been a little on the small side. More importantly, nothing funny happens. Dan and me and some of the others go to celebrate at a sleazy bar called Hole in the Wall. The bar owner knows me and cashes my prize check. I open my fool mouth and say the first round’s on me.
I pack away more than a couple of beers, then in walks Ben Walker—did I mention I can’t stand him?—with a blonde wearing a ponytail, a short skirt, and a low-cut blouse. She’s hanging all over Ben. The skirt and blouse don’t catch my attention—although they do catch the attention of every man in the place—but what comes with her does—the distinctive odor of magic. It was her. The witch who tried to kill me.
Mad and drunk, I storm right up to the blonde, grab her arm, and shout, “Why in the hell did you try to kill me?”
Ben tells me to get my filthy hands off his woman, and I tell him where he can stuff it and his mother. He punches me in the gut. Now, Josh is big, but he must never have learned how to fight worth a hill of beans.
When I can’t get up any more, Ben grabs the witch’s hand. “Come on, Eileen. They let any old trash drink in this place.”
* * *
I have no idea how I end up back at the rodeo grounds in the back of my truck, but I hope I didn’t drive. I have a whole $75 in my pocket and a note that the bar owner took the rest to pay for damages. Why should I have to pay? It isn’t like I wanted my head to break the bar stool.
The next day I’m in no condition to ride, and Ben wins the top prize money again, which pisses me off even more. Eileen isn’t in the staging area like some riders’ women, and I can’t sense her anywhere else in the arena. But the pain in my gut is taking most of my attention, and she could be ten feet from me and I might not feel her.
* * *
Because of my magic, I heal fast, so by Tuesday I’m feeling mostly alive. I’m more than determined to find this Eileen and get the truth out of her by any means necessary. Ben is from Auburn. Thinks he’s all high and mighty because he goes to the university there, and I figure Eileen is some sorority chick. So I go to the Hamilton public library where they’ve got computers, and I google Ben to get his address. I borrow Uncle Gilly’s truck because Ben knows mine, and no, I don’t ask, but I leave a note and the extra key to my truck. That should be enough for any reasonable person, especially considering how much I save him in vet bills.
I get to Ben’s apartment complex at about three in the afternoon. He comes home about four with one of those university-student book bags, wearing khakis and a polo shirt. He isn’t even wearing boots. Some cowboy.
About an hour later he comes back out and gets in his truck. At least he has a truck and not some fancy-assed BMW. I follow him, and as I hope, he drives over to another apartment complex and picks up Eileen. Now that I know where she lives, I lean back in Uncle Gilly’s truck and wait.
About two hours later Ben’s truck squeals into the lot. Eileen flings the door open almost before the truck has a chance to stop. She jumps out and screams, “I hope I never see you again,” then slams the door and stalks off to her apartment. Ben squeals out of the parking lot. I can’t help smiling. Anything that makes Ben unhappy is mighty fine with me.
I give Eileen a minute to get settled. Then I knock, and she opens the door. Before she can recognize me, I push my way in and grab her arm. I’m about to ask her again why she tried to kill me when I’m hit with what feels like a sledge hammer.
When I wake up, I’m on the floor with my hands and feet tied. Eileen’s sitting on the couch across from me. I’m starting not to like Eileen. Now, you might be wondering why I don’t magic my way out of the rope. My magic only affects living things, and even with living things, I have to be touching them, so I’m pretty much stuck. You might also be wondering why I didn’t use magic on Ben the other night. Well, I was so mad and drunk I didn’t think about it.
I try to stall Eileen while I work at untying the ropes. “You have me where you want me. Before you kill me could you at least tell me why?”
She snorts. “What witch would ever dare kill? Don’t you know that whatever magic of ill-intent we do comes back on us four-fold? A death curse is suicide for a witch.”
I have to keep her talking because I’m not having any luck with the ropes. “You expect me to believe there is another witch around here?”
She rolls her eyes like I’m the stupidest dumb ass she’s ever had the misfortune to meet. “Of course there are other witches. My coven has five members, but I promise you it wasn’t one of them. If it was a witch, she would need something of yours—hair, fingernail clippings, blood—to work any magic against you.”
“Huh?” I know, brilliant comeback, but my head is reeling. “If you have a whole coven, how come I’ve never run into any of you?”
Eileen rolls her eyes again. “We don’t exactly advertise. Alabama isn’t friendly to witches. You know, Exodus 22:18: ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’”
I have to admit she has a point. I don’t “exactly advertise” my skills either. “Well, how many witches are there around here?”
She shrugs. “Probably less than a dozen, but there might be more. The more powerful ones can shield themselves so I can’t feel them. I can feel you though, but I don’t know what you are.”
Maybe I’m stupid, but I believe her when she says she didn’t try to kill me. Mostly because if she wanted me dead, I’d be dead by now, so I decide to tell her the truth. “I’m a witch. I heal things, make them better.” Well, truth be told, I can make them worse, too.
“A witch?” she says like I’m speaking Chinese. “Men aren’t witches.”
“I’m not a man. I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body.” She looks at me like I’m crazy. “Look, can you untie me? I’ll tell you everything.” I’ve just about given up getting the ropes off.
“I’m waiting for the rest of my coven. When they get here, you’ll tell us everything, then we’ll decide whether to untie you or kill you.”
“I thought you said witches don’t kill.”
“If we do it as a coven, the feedback is diffused enough that we can handle it. It isn’t pleasant though.”
I gulp, wondering just how many times her coven has killed people, and start working harder on the ropes. Eileen just sits there with her arms and legs crossed, swinging her foot and not looking at me. “You mad at me or Ben?” I ask, hoping her fight with Ben doesn’t get me killed.
“Don’t mention that jerk to me!” She snorts. “Can you believe he thinks I’m a liar? He doesn’t believe I’m a witch.”
“You told him?”
She glares at me. “Long story. None of your business.”
She looks away from me and doesn’t say another word until her coven shows up. The first to arrive is a pretty black woman with her hair shaved to a fine buzz. Eileen introduces her as Kinyisha. The other three eventually arrive. Sandy, Nadeen, and Susan are white, but only Eileen has that sorority chick look.
My hands are numb, and I wonder how I’m going to talk them out of killing me. I tell them about the attack and everything I know about my situation, which isn’t much. I think I’m a princess from some parallel realm. Then one day I wake up in Josh Killenyen’s body. I don’t know how I got here or how to get back where I belong.
When I finish, the witches sit there and look at each other for a while and then down at me and then back at each other. “I think he may be crazy,” Kinyisha says. “But I don’t think he’s dangerous to us.”
They debate my sanity for what feels like forever, and when I try to hurry them up, they threaten to gag me. Apparently, they don’t have a leader, so they have to come to a consensus before they do anything. Eventually, they reach the consensus that I’m either insane or a—I won’t say the word they use, but it’s foul—liar. I can’t convince them otherwise, especially since I can provide so few details and merely say, “I don’t remember” to most of their questions.
Finally, they decide I’m probably not dangerous and untie me, but they make me stay out of touching distance. Then they debate whether or not to help me. Kinyisha—I’m starting to like her—is all for helping me. “Isn’t that the purpose of a coven? To help those in need?”
“But he’s nuts!” says Nadeen. “He claims he’s a princess from a parallel universe. You ever hear of any parallel universes? Does he look like a princess?” I’m starting not to like Nadeen.
Still, they eventually decide that if there is some unknown witch working hostile magic in their territory, they need to know more about it. They agree that one of them should stick with me at every rodeo. Eileen doesn’t want any part of it because she’s mad at Ben and doesn’t want to be anywhere near him. When the other women ask her why, she won’t tell them anything. I figure she probably isn’t supposed to tell people she’s a witch. The other four agree to take turns, but Nadeen is far from happy.
* * *
Kinyisha comes with me to the next rodeo in Poplarville, Mississippi. She weaves some of my hair into a ring and charms it. She says it will block any curse aimed at my hand unless it’s thrown by a really powerful witch.
After making my ring, Kinyisha sits in the stands to try to feel for the presence of any witches. Nothing funny happens, and I score an eighty-five, which means that unless somebody gets real lucky tomorrow, I’ll walk off with the top prize money.
I offer to let Kinyisha sleep in the back of my truck with me.
She’s reluctant, but doesn’t want to pay for a motel room, and I don’t have the money for one. “If you try anything, I’ll curse your genitals”—she used a different word here—“and make them fall off.”
“Hey, I may look like a man, but I’m a woman. I’m not interested in you that way.”
She snorts, still thinking I’m crazy, but she climbs in the back with me and seems disappointed in the morning that I didn’t at least try to molest her.
Nobody uses magic against me on Saturday either, and nobody tops my score. I end up with $852 in prize money.
* * *
Nothing happens over the next few weeks, and I continue to win. The witches are starting to get tired of me, and frankly, I’m tired of them, especially Nadeen who always looks at me like some garbage she just stepped in. Meanwhile, Eileen makes up with Ben—apparently he apologized and bought her flowers and chocolates and who knows what else. She talks about how wonderful he is, and I just about lose my lunch on her sorority girl shoes. She comes with me—well, with Ben—to the rodeo in Millbrook, Alabama, just up the road from Montgomery. She makes me a ring like all of the other witches have done, and I get on my bull. It’s Man Killer again. We barely get out of the chute when something hits my hand, and I go flying off into the wall, breaking my arm. I’m in so much pain I can’t concentrate enough to look for witches. To my humiliation, I have to be taken away in the ambulance, and, of course, with me out of it, Ben wins the top prize money.
* * *
On Saturday I drive to Auburn to meet with the witches. Eileen says she didn’t feel anything, which scares the witches because only someone powerful could hide from them. Besides, Eileen’s ring should have stopped anything done by a less powerful witch. They wonder if they’re in over their heads and should take it to someone more powerful. They decide not to because they don’t trust the powerful and because it could be one of them behind it. Instead, the witches decide they’re all going to go to the next rodeo I’m fit to ride in.
* * *
I haven’t a clue how I’m going to pay the hospital bill, especially since my broken arm keeps me out of bull riding for a week, but as I said, I heal a lot faster than normal, so I’m ready to ride the week after that down in Panama City, Florida. The witches are excited because they can go to the beach between rodeos. At the rodeo ground, the witches spread out throughout the crowd to feel for witches. Nothing happens on Friday night, but I draw He-man again and only score in the sixties. Ben scores an eighty-two, which will be hard to beat on Saturday night.
Eileen goes off with Ben the next day, but I go with the rest of the witches to the beach. Nadeen seems disappointed that I don’t react to her in a bikini.
* * *
On Saturday I draw Kracken—he’s not quite as tough as Man Killer, but mighty close, and with all of the witches spread throughout the crowd I figure I’m safe enough. I’m not about to let Ben beat me again. I ride first, and for the first few seconds, I think everything’s going to be fine. Then the curse hits my hand, and I go flying off. This time when I hit the ground, I’m so mad that I don’t go over the closest fence like I’m supposed to. Instead, I ignore the danger of the bull and charge across the arena to the stands where I felt the curse coming from.
I gape in disbelief. Right in the middle of the stands sits Eileen. Kinyisha and the other three witches run up to me, and they gape at Eileen, too. When the crowd clears out, Eileen claims she didn’t do anything, and there must have been some other witch near her. The other witches don’t believe her, and I don’t either. They decide to take her off to a coven thing. I insist on coming with them, but the witches won’t have any outsider involved.
“Just try and stop me from coming,” I say, and Kinyisha hits me with one of those sledgehammers.
When I wake up, the witches are nowhere in sight. I go wait at my truck.
* * *
I fall asleep waiting, and about three in the morning, Kinyisha crawls in the back with me. From the sound of her voice, I can tell she’s been crying. “She finally admitted it. Breaking all our codes, she sent the curse against you. Ben provided her a few strands of your hair the first time. And you gave her plenty to use the other two times. If it helps any, she wasn’t trying to kill you, just make you fall off so Ben could win. She said you were using magic to win, and that wasn’t fair.”
“Well . . .” I start to defend myself, but I think she might have a point. I’m not about to admit it, though. Instead, I say, “So Ben believes she’s a witch.”
“She broke our vow of secrecy and told him. He didn’t believe her at first and just gave her your hair as a joke. He made fun of her when she told him that she made you fall off the bull. That’s why she was mad at him, but when you started winning again, he made up with her. She told him it was too dangerous for her to do it tonight with the rest of us here, but he bullied her into it, saying he needed the prize money for tuition.”
“Whether she meant to kill me or not, she came damn close. Just what do you plan to do about that?”
“She’ll be taken care of. You won’t have to worry about her again.”
“Taken care of? Just what does that mean?”
Kinyisha shakes her head, and no matter how many times I ask her, she won’t tell me. She does offer to introduce me to the more powerful witches she knows to see if any of them can help me with my body switching problem, even though I think she still believes I’m crazy.
I take her up on her offer. Maybe something good will come out of nearly having my head smashed open like a watermelon.