“The Scapegoat Village” by Daniel Ausema

1 El desengaño

It is a lonely trail down from the city, an empty trail used only once each year. He scrambles, lowering himself down steep drops, mindful of the weight on his back: the city’s debts, owed each year to the demons of the plains. The red of the soil and rocks leaves marks on his clothing and on the sack of the city’s debt, chronicling his descent in smudges of color.

The people in the city watch solemnly from their walls, grateful for his sacrifice, saddened that the bison and terror birds and other demons make it necessary. The old-timers make a show of holstering their guns, followed in a strict sequence by younger generations, in the traditional farewell to a scapegoat.

A twist of his neck as he glances upward speaks of regret. A spasm in his jaw of anger. Why him, why chosen, why must the plains demand a life? There is no resignation in the care he takes to descend, though. His eyes, alive as they take in the path ahead, say he has not given up his life, though the death sentence pulls him downward.

The plains open up after a final, mad scramble down loose scree. A thousand pebbles accompany him into the high plains, but their sound is swallowed by the vast emptiness. It is a death, though not yet the true death he has been taught to expect.

Scrub and dry rills guide his wandering away from the steep mountain. When he is an hour’s walk beyond that final descent, a new sound rises, one not diminished by the plains, but seeming even to swallow the emptiness itself. It grows louder, and soon he sees the leading bison of a vast herd. His punishers, come to claim him as the city’s debt. He unslings the pack from his back and lays it in the path of the bison. Then he steps back. Waits.

It is a tense waiting, of muscles that want to flee, of mind that wants to hide, of will that chooses to stay…but may choose elsewise any moment.

The demons ignore him. The earth’s shaking knocks him to his knees, and one outlying bison comes as close as the pack of debts and tramples it without apparent intent. For him, no notice. The bison demons pass by in all their thunderous fury, leaving him behind and alone and confused. Is there no payment for debts? Must he wander until some other demon chooses to take his life?

He gives his answer with a straightened back, a small shake of his head. He brushes the plains’ dust from his clothes, though there is no help for the earlier stains, and sets off across the trampled grass.

A gunshot surprises him, a short and sharp noise that creates no echoes on the plain. He is much too far to hear the fights or defensive shots of his mountain home. Yet he’s never heard of demons carrying firearms. Guns, the ancient inherited weapons of the city’s founders, have always been the one advantage humans have in the mountains. This gunshot bears investigating.

The land dips into a rock-lined gully. It looks small, and he might easily have passed it by, but he notices a coyote slink out from the sagebrush, stalking toward a prairie dog colony. The movement draws his attention deeper into the brush the coyote has left. Entering the gully, he sees that it opens up into a larger space. The rock walls at the bottom are carved into doors and windows, and flimsier dwellings are made of scavenged wood.

He slows his approach, and his hand reaches for his side where he used to carry a pistol. There is no holster there now.

The first face he sees, he knows. She was the scapegoat a few years earlier. Dead. Assumed killed by demons. Has he died too? The question is clear in his face, and his footsteps slow. Has he stumbled into a village of the dead? She looks alive, though, and his memory has no obvious gaps, where he might be forgetting his death.

His pace returns, and other familiar faces come out to greet him, the scapegoats of the years past, alive and in the flesh. A few are absent—perhaps having genuinely given their lives to the demons of the plain, perhaps dying of other causes, gunshots and herding injuries and the ague. And some are unfamiliar, the children of earlier scapegoats, long before his time. Regardless, the village of the disenchanted scapegoats welcomes him.

* * *

2 La reacción

A band of bravos crosses the plains. They are the herd, ride like bison, like lords of the grasses. If any terror birds notice them, they do not approach. The newest scapegoat is one of them, a cobbled gun in one hand, a scarcely trained mustang beneath him. Riding is good. The wind, the speed, the fearlessness, being a part of a group. These are all good things, but they are not revenge. Revenge would be an even better thing.

He is not alone in thinking so.

Others who agree with him form a band within the band, a nucleus irritant in a prairie oyster. They plot and rage until he is certain the time has come.

He is not in charge, though, and a fight follows. They leave their pistols in holsters, but words become blows become all-out wrestling on the dusty street.

He does not win. The winner is not his initial opponent either, though, but one of the youths who’d agreed with him in the first place. She was never a scapegoat herself but has inherited her parents’ rage like an heirloom. Once all accept her as leader, she arranges them in a wide line of horses.

They charge the mountain. None of those who were once scapegoats can forget the location of the trail that led them downward to what they thought was death. Even the others know the way, the route a sacred pilgrimage for the people of scapegoat village.

As the band races in (as they imagine) to battle, the horses shy from the mountain base, refuse to climb. The path is steep, the aspiring soldiers realize, far steeper than they’d been aware in their respective descents and subsequent visits. The horses stand no chance of climbing.

The people mill about, cattle-like in their uncertainty. The most recent scapegoat steps forward, urges them to continue. What are horses, that they can’t do without them? What is steepness, that they can’t overcome? The band is better than such minor matters.

He leads them to the path and up the first climb…and he learns that steepness can be an enemy even greater than tradition, an adversary surpassing even the blind superstitions that had sent him and the other scapegoats to the prairie to die.

They do not give in easily. Their individual anger, their need for revenge, push them up the first scramble, and then they have each other to prod and encourage and keep their passion running hot. It can’t carry them all the way, though. Anger cools, and emotions level off as if into their own psychic plain to match the geographic one below.

He is the last to give up. He waves his pistol through the air, shakes his fist at the mountain, and slinks back down to join the full posse in its meaningless rambles across the high plains.

* * *

3 El idealismo

Three more scapegoats have come to the city in subsequent years. The earlier one no longer rides with the bravos. He has found his place among other groups in the city. He still rides the prairie, especially with a small group of friends, but they are often casual rides, slow and deliberate. They stop at a saguaro to watch the hawks or pause beside a prairie dog colony to listen to the yips.

They are dreamers, longing for something wild and exciting and new, though what that something is changes with the months. One of them wants to leave the plains behind, find out what else there might be, far from terror birds and the bison they now know are not demons. Another longs to tame the bison, to herd them and cull them and ride with them as far as they range. They speak of exploring the mountains, of finding a way up the imposing foothills and into an imagined interior of peaks and glorious trees. They speak of creating a city on the prairie, its lights so bright that it draws the people of their old city out of their hiding place. They imagine iron horses and lines of tracks across the prairie, though they don’t know what to call them. Tracks to lead them to distant places and to bring distant goods to them.

It is the thought of the mountains that keeps calling to him, though, amidst all their imaginings. He dreams of climbing into their pure heights, but not merely to revel in the vista. He pictures himself returning to the city of his birth. He imagines walking into the city, telling them the truth of the prairies. That there is no debt owed to the prairie, that the birds and bison are animals and not demons, that there is a place on the plains for any who want to leave the mountains behind.

When they discuss such plans, he casts that image as secondary to an expedition into the mountains. They can explore the peaks and valleys, discover what animals and plants live there, and maybe come by the city along their way. The possibility, though, consumes him. When he isn’t daydreaming with his friends, he runs through the scenarios, acting out the roles where no one can watch him.

They take care, gathering supplies and making plans. They scope out the terrain, decide where to climb and where to aim. It is not the familiar descent they settle on, but a trickle of a waterfall, where the formidable wall of rock is softened. The climb is still steep, and the water makes it slick. Five of them, tied together, help each other up.

At the top is merely a shallow bowl of a valley, the wall of rock rising beyond it. No gateway deeper into the peaks. No back way toward the city of their origin. There are animals—unfamiliar rodents that waddle beside the briefly horizontal stream, birds that tease them with their effortless flight up the rock face, frogs whose croaks echo off the valley walls. The friends examine the plants they find, pretend interest and amazement at the giddiness of learning something new, but their faces return always to that impassible barrier ahead.

The return climb lacks all glamor. They scramble and assist each other and return to the scapegoat village in a haze of weariness and defeat. When they dream again, it will have nothing to do with mountains, but only of the plains themselves, and what might lie across them, beyond the peak-less horizons.

* * *

4 La sagacidad

More years pass. More scapegoats come down, though two years in a row, the scapegoat actually dies before reaching the village, once to the hooves of the bison and once to the beaks of the terror birds. The debt paid, the villagers say, shaking their heads at the waste, at the obsolete superstition. More children are born to the village as well, the children and grandchildren of scapegoats, who inherit their parents’ mantle, if not their memories.

The man is now seen as aged and wise, in part because he keeps silent most of the time. New bands of bravos ask him about the failed attack, but he shakes his head and refuses to speak. Others talk of the new tracks that surround the village and the carts that ride them. Was he instrumental in their design, as some people report? How does he imagine them being used in the future? A mumbled deflection is all he gives, though he seems to watch the carts with alert eyes and a gleam of pride.

An attack by a crazed terror bird one day destroys a section of track. The bird’s kicks dislodge the cross-pieces and bend the metal, still hot from a recent cart. The man pulls his gun, an old six-shooter held together by dust and memory, and shoots. The bird doesn’t fall. Old age, they think, and pretend to be sad, while inside they’re thrilled to be reminded that they aren’t like him yet, that they can still shoot straight, at least. It’s a moment later when the old hitching post that’s been moved out to the edge of town falls over. The sudden movement and the dull thud of its fall startle the terror bird. It jumps up and backward, recovers its balance, and tears away across the plain.

Later, those cleaning up will notice that the hitching post was rotten, and the last remaining strand of solid wood on one of the supports has a clean bullet hole straight through it.

The carts inspire other advances. A group prepares to climb a parallel path toward the city of their origin, using new tools and techniques. Whether they go in anger or to teach, they do not say, at least not where he hears them.

A second group lays tracks eastward. The progress is slow across the plain, as they put down the tracks, move the carts, back up, and reposition them. Eventually, though, the tracks go out beyond the horizon.

In later years, when new scapegoats descend, they find the village empty but for one old man. He speaks in halting words, telling stories of the village and the scapegoats of another age. They sit beside him, feel a sense of connection to this old relic of a man. Eventually, though, long before the year is up and a new scapegoat comes, they will leave. The new path or the shine of the tracks will lure them away, and the man is alone once more.

Daniel Ausema’s fiction and poetry have appeared in many publications, including Strange Horizons and Diabolical Plots, and in earlier issues of Kaleidotrope. His novel The Silk Betrayal is published by Guardbridge Books, and he is also the creator of the Spire City series. He lives in Colorado, at the foot of the Rockies.
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