Hot wind blew through the dining room window at Douglas House. The newly-formed Nebraska Territory leeched moisture and hope from Sarah Blackwell. She licked her cracked lips as she learned of her family’s fate.
“Your parents fought mighty hard,” said William Brown, settlement leader. “But their incantation rebounded off the wendigo. The demon spirit abandoned its former body, possessed your brother, and fled. I’m sorry. Your parents died.”
The news dropped like lead shot in Sarah’s belly. After rooting out black magic practitioners in Boston, her parents insisted they could destroy the demon menacing their new town. Sarah clasped her hands tight across her middle.
“If we can’t banish the wendigo, new settlers will avoid Omaha,” Brown continued. Around the plain cottonwood table, the settlement’s founders nodded. “Best if everyone puts their minds to findin’ some solutions.”
The others filed out. When Sarah stood, Brown touched her shoulder.
“Stay here,” said Brown.
“I must find James,” she said.
“Mind my word, girl. I’ll sail up the Missouri. I heard tell of a wizard at Fort Randall.”
The moment he left, Sarah raced upstairs to the room she and James shared. She dropped onto her grass-stuffed mattress and gave in to grief. When her sobs ebbed, she sat up. Crying solved nothing. James needed her.
Sarah plucked strands of his light brown hair from his pillow. She pulled clothes and boots from his chest, then stripped off her bonnet and calico. Easier to search for James, and to avoid questions, dressed like a boy.
The wendigo was a Chippewa demon. Her parents hadn’t gotten native help. The Fort Randall wizard might not. She would.
In her parents’ room, Sarah took a pouch of her mother’s dried herbs. Over a chair she spied her father’s gun belt. A gun couldn’t kill a demon, least not the ones she’d studied. Then again, demons weren’t the only trouble in the West.
Sarah strapped the gun belt on, and stomped downstairs and out into the July sun. Dust devils swirled up from the dirt road as she strode past the saloon and jail toward the livery stable.
“Saddle my father’s horse,” she told the stableboy. He squinted at her, scratched his head, then shrugged and complied. Sarah sighed and swung herself up.
“Where can I find a Chippewa magician?” she asked.
Dark, earnest eyes met her green ones.
“Go to Bellevue,” he said. “Ask for Migisi.”
Sarah rode south; a spell sustained the horse’s gallop. A boy led her to a wrinkled man facilitating fur trade between Chippewa hunters and white merchants. After Migisi finished, Sarah begged his help.
“No. The wendigo consumes, grows, yet is never satisfied,” he said.
“You can’t defeat it?” Sarah bit her lip. “Or won’t?”
“Why should I? The white man’s insatiable desire for land is what attracted the wendigo to your people.”
Sarah said, “I don’t care about land. Only my brother. He’s all I have left.”
Migisi frowned, mumbled to himself, and pressed a hand against her chest. She flinched, then controlled herself.
“Ah. You tell the truth. About that at least.” He rubbed his nose. “What do you offer in return?”
“I can’t make my people leave.”
Migisi snorted. “Reading my mind? Even I know that’s impossible. Instead, share your magical knowledge with me.”
“I’m only sixteen. My training is incomplete — ”
“Promise. I desire to understand white men’s magic.”
There was no choice. “I promise,” said Sarah.
“Tie up your horse. Walk with me.”
Outside the town limits Migisi pointed at the pebbled ground. “Draw your defenses.”
He built a fire. Sarah found a stick and inscribed a protective circle around them. Over the flames Migisi sprinkled a powder that burned like incense. When Sarah tossed her brother’s hair into the fire, a puff of smoke and green sparks flew up.
“Call your brother.”
Sarah wove a summoning spell while Migisi chanted low in Chippewa. Their voices clashed and foreboding filled her.
Shuffling sounds emanated from the nearby woods. With an angry roar, a creature crashed through the trees and rushed toward them. The monster was twice as tall as a man, a skin-covered skeleton oozing pus. The stink of decay polluted the air.
Sarah screamed and pulled the gun, but as she fired, Migisi knocked her arm aside.
“Hell,” she cried, and dropped the gun, pain flaring from the recoil and his strike.
“Don’t. That’s the wendigo. Your brother will die too,” said Migisi. “We must force them apart. Leave the demon to me. Focus on James. Trust in your magic.”
Sarah swallowed bile and nodded. With hands raised, she sprinkled her mother’s dried rosemary and lavender–grown back home in their Boston garden–over the flames. She began a new incantation beckoning loved ones home. The creature howled, swinging its arms as it charged forward, but it couldn’t cross the circle. Spells battered the wendigo, splitting demon from human. Sarah cringed at the sounds of bones scraping, and the snapping of sinew.
Their voices grew hoarse from smoke and stench. They strained to merge their exhortations, pale pioneer woman and copper native man, until the wendigo’s body blurred into a writhing dark shadow. The shadow divided and solidified into two bodies. James, covered in putrid slime, collapsed on the ground. The shrunken wendigo shrieked, clutched its sides and staggered north.
Sarah hurried to her brother.
“He’s breathing,” she said, crying with relief.
Migisi retrieved the horse. Sarah fetched her canteen and washed James’ gore-smeared face.
He mumbled. “Sarah? Father… mother…”
She shushed him. “I know.”
As she and Migisi lifted James across the saddle, the Chippewa chant whispered in her mind.
“I need a teacher too.” Sarah swallowed her sorrow. “Help me protect my people,” she asked. “Please?”
Migisi muttered at the sky in Chippewa before responding. “You knew enough to ask my help,” he said. “You’ll make an apt student. But will your people listen to a female?”
“Yes.” She’d proven herself now. “I’ll make them hear me. Omaha needs a good witch.”
Lee Budar-Danoff sails, plays guitar, and writes when she isn’t reading. Lee volunteers as Municipal Liaison for National Novel Writing Month and is an alum of the Viable Paradise Writer’s Workshop. A former history teacher, Lee spends that energy raising three children with her husband in Maryland.