PUMPKIN RIDERS

Steve Oden

 

 

Tucker Eddy was awakened by a meaty whack and a loud groan. Angry at himself for dozing off, he lit an oil lantern, and crept from the shed.

Moonlight silvered his pumpkin patch. The patch was a jungle of leaves broad as his chest, curling vines thicker than fence posts, and green pumpkins the size of barrels. Past the circle of flickering lamplight, shadows and moonlight made the garden a fairy-tale kingdom. A dangerous one.

He gripped a cudgel and raised the lantern, stepping cautiously. Dark feline forms slithered between the goliath plants, eyes glowing and noses in the air, alert for rats sent to gnaw at his pumpkins.

A glint of steel drew his gaze. His nose twitched at the coppery scent of blood.

He stopped before a silent tableau at the base of a pumpkin larger than a horse.

One of the pumpkin’s forearm-thick vines oozed pale green juice from a wild hatchet swipe. The plant had reacted by coiling the injured vine like a rattlesnake and striking out with the impact of a sledge hammer. Even juvenile fighting pumpkins could be deadly.

The gash would soon scab over and become a fibrous scar. Feeding tendrils were already sprouting from the exposed cambium layer and questing hungrily toward the dazed and bleeding intruder sent to make sure it never reached the Tempest Fall Fair, where riders guided giant pumpkins in battle, sometimes to the death.

Tucker always set varmint and human-trespasser traps, but the vines themselves were the best guards. They possessed a spark of magical sentience, thanks to Grandma Eddy’s old book of spells and charms.

He counted the man-shaped leafy middens in the patch where decomposing bodies provided extra sustenance for growing plants. Three this season, so far, and possibly more on the way. Tucker was always sickened to find bodies, but feeder tendrils usually beat him to the corpses, and there was nothing he could do.

This one would survive. Tucker helped him stand and stagger away. The would-be assassin left his hatchet behind. Tucker had a collection of implements of destruction bequeathed by other mischief-makers, all sent by the same man. The High Sheriff had finally told him not to report any more trespassers. The lawman was keenly aware of the re-election risk of crossing Tucker’s powerful enemy.

Resting against the huge vegetable likely to be his farm’s gladiator this year, Tucker closed his eyes and dreamt of the ribbed giant rising from his pumpkin patch, vines like cables reaching into the October night sky, leaping and dancing, twirling and hopping.

It was a good dream.

 

Tucker had been a stripling youth when Creasy Warmouth nearly ruined the Eddy family and drove his father to an early grave. Tucker saved the family farm with hard work, good sense, and green magic passed down from his ancestors.

But Warmouth’s inventive attempts to ruin the Eddy family carried on. He could never guess what Warmouth might try next.

 

“It’s hard to believe this feud started over seeds,” observed Gabby Redfern, starting an oft-repeated conversation.

They stood over a barrel of spring water, pouring in tonics and fortifiers from recipes handed down in the Eddy family. Tucker chanted ward spells to make the fertilizing liquid both nutritious and disease repellant.

“The work your daddy put in to breeding giant pumpkins! Creasy Warmouth was no partner, didn’t lift a finger, just laughed him to scorn.”

Tucker nodded. “Warmouth hated it when daddy made big money in seed sales. Wanted it all for himself. Nearly got it, too.”

Tucker tried to keep his mind on the job at hand, but it was hard when he was around Gabby. She owned a nearby farm and raised fighting pumpkins of her own. She’d have an entry this year, too. She was a skilled farmer, a lot of fun, beautiful even with faded overalls and golden hair in pigtails. Nearly everyone in the valley expected announcement of their engagement.

She swirled the purple liquid with a wooden paddle. “So this is your formula for vine rust.”

Tucker nodded again, carefully adding witch hazel. He caught the scent of her homemade vanilla-and-lilac goat’s milk soap. It was much in demand by women in the community.

Later, they sat in the porch swing, sipping elderberry wine and watching evening shadows creep over Tucker’s 10-acre pumpkin patch.

“You still sleeping in the shed?” she asked.

“As long as Warmouth still offers a bounty on my pumpkins I have to watch out.”

She leaned into Tucker and nuzzled his ear. But she whispered: “Better watch out for me. I mean to get you in the arena this year.”

Tucker smiled. “And I aim to get Warmouth. Then we get each other to the altar.”

Gabby smiled and leaned her head against his shoulder.

 

The Warmouth/Eddy store had struggled under Warmouth’s management. He made excuses, all the time secretly siphoning off profits. He became rich and powerful, taking pleasure in watching Tucker’s father struggle to make ends meet and mortgage the family farm to keep the business going. He’d been enraged and embarrassed when Tucker’s father had made fighting pumpkin seed sales of greater value than the whole store.

He waged a campaign to ruin his partner then carried on his anger against the son.

But Tucker had held on to the family farm. And made his acreage famous for burgeoning beds of flowers, vigorous vegetables, fruit trees heavy with apples, peaches and pears, cornfields that produced the summer’s first roasting ears… and giant pumpkins.

He loved his valley, where farmers had ties of ancestry and belief rooted in the valley’s fertile soil. They cultivated prolific crops and gardens, using knowledge developed by their forebears, in whom earth, sun, and moon magic had been strong. Adhering to the Old Ways, planting by the signs, and using minor incantations to increase yields, their cows gave more milk; their sheep’s wool was of higher quality, their produce finer.

So Creasy Warmouth might have bankers, lawyers, judges, and tax collectors at his beck-and-call but he had no connection to any of that local wisdom. He ignored tradition, while the Eddy family had always been strong in green magic, and Tucker had Grandma Eddy’s hand-written book on it all to guide him.

 

The postal route man, Hiram Carter, could hardly wait to stop at the Eddy farm’s rusty mail box. Carter carried the mail and community information, otherwise known as gossip. All he needed was some alcohol to prime the pump.

Carter called out, “Creasy Warmouth sent you a letter!”

Tucker came out to the lane with a small jug and offered it to Carter. “Might as well wait while I read it, Hiram. Folks will want to know what it says.”

Hiram tilted back the small jug and let the cool honey ale soothe his throat, while the pumpkin farmer pulled a bent pair of spectacles from his overalls, balanced the halfmoon lenses on the end of his nose, and perused the letter.

“It says: ‘Dear Mr. Eddy, I thought this the right time to make a good faith offer concerning this year’s competition. Certain things make this one different. Not only have I grown the largest battle pumpkins ever seen in these parts, I have contracted with a handler over in Circleville to pilot my entry. You might have heard of Dub Thacker.’ — Who’s this Thacker fella, Hiram?”

The postman low-whistled. “He comes with a high price tag! Dub won the Moore County Melee last year, and they say he’s ridden more winners than any living person.”

Tucker read further. “Oh, this is a viper’s promise, for certain. Listen . . . ‘Seeing how you’ve enjoyed some minor success when health problems prevented me from hands-on involvement in past competitions, I’d like you to know of my decision to retire after this year’s event. Dub Thacker will guide my largest and best pumpkin to an easy victory. But I am willing to officially declare you my worthy successor and depart from the field of battle—going out a winner, as always—if only you agree to withdraw. To sweeten the pot, I’ve asked Banker McGraw to renegotiate your outstanding farm mortgage, giving you a lower interest rate and putting some money in your pocket.’”

Hiram slapped dust from his dungarees, laughing, not noticing the intensity in Tucker’s blue eyes.

“Then there’s threats about what might happen if I don’t agree. Got a blank postcard and pencil?” The young farmer wrote a brief note and smiled grimly. “You’ll show everybody my reply?

Hiram nodded.
“Good. We’ll see what he thinks of this. Now I better get back to the patch. Found some of those horn-fly grubs, and you know how fast they multiply.”

Thus, everyone in the valley and county learned Tucker Eddy had promised Creasey Warmouth and Dub Thacker they’d be lying in the dust of the arena, beside their flattened pumpkins.

 

An acre of Tucker’s patch was shielded by an open-sided shed with removable roof sections, enabling sunlight and afternoon heat to be regulated. He nurtured the most promising vines inside. One of the gargantuan pumpkins would be his battle arena entry.

When the most worthy candidates matured, he removed the timber fences and allowed the vines to wrestle for supremacy. The winner would be fed a special elixir that brought it to weights in excess of several tons.

All growers used a common spell to animate their fighting pumpkins. It was a basic form of magic used to keep trees from leaning toward houses and ensure melon plants extended vines in straight rows to enable easy weeding. They used reins to guide the animated pumpkins.

But Tucker used a special magic. On the dark of the moon in October, he used the Canticle of Dark Flesh from Granny Eddy’s book to cast spells linking him to his giants.

Grandma Eddy had won blue-ribbons at the fair for homemade tonics and potions. She used her magic to help family and friends — chants to cure milk fever in cows or blight weeds in the strawberry patch. Also stronger stuff such as incantations to make animals and plants obey, or to control the weather. She dabbled in even more powerful magic to summon earth spirits or elemental helpers.

 

His fighting pumpkin had been chosen, a mighty gourd that would be the first entry in history to top eight thousand pounds, bred from lines developed by Tucker’s father. It was time to bind the giant to his will. A crocheted bookmark guided him to the pages on how to animate vegetable flesh and master growing things. Tucker gathered what he needed for the ritual.

The pumpkin patch had yellowed. Leaves were shriveled and vines curled from autumn frost. The pumpkin loomed like a mountain, dwarfing the farmer. He held a single candle to illuminate the book’s pages. The wind had died. Cold air settled and pooled, but Tucker felt the warmth of a higher magic in his being. He chanted the Canticle of Dark Flesh in the midnight gloom as Sirius shone in the velvet sky, twinkling with colors.

Tucker sprinkled asafetida around the pumpkin and poured gallons of water that had sat in the full moonlight on the huge tap root.

He chanted through the night, not stopping until Venus broke the horizon and pink light began to suffuse the dawn sky. The pumpkin shivered. The ground trembled. Soil fell away from roots, and dead leaves rattled. The mighty pumpkin pulled itself out of the soil and stood high in the gathering light, filling Tucker with pride and anticipation.

He told the giant pumpkin to rest for now, dig its roots back into the soil and still its vines. There would be plenty of time to practice before the fair, by tradition the last Sunday before Hallowe’en.

He trudged to his bed in the shed, tired but filled with tingling energy.

 

On the morning of the Tempest Fall Fair, dust clouds marked the passing of carriages and wagons. Riders on horseback and people on foot streamed toward the fairgrounds, filling all the roads round. Churches would be empty today. Even the most religious wouldn’t miss this event. Competitors took separate routes to avoid spooking horses with their massive, mobile pumpkins.

Tucker Eddy rose early. With the help of a farmhand, he knocked down the fence around his growing shed. They dragged a wicker basket underneath the shed’s loft hatch and raised it with a rope-and-pulley system.

The giant pumpkin stayed calm and obedient, barely flinching when the basket was lifted and lowered onto its crown. They strapped it carefully and ran reins around the primary vines, now bigger around than a man’s thigh. No one knew Tucker actually guided the battler through his magical link.

Tucker climbed the rickety ladder. The basket held a much-patched cushion on which the grower seated himself. When all was ready, he set the giant in motion.

The plant tore itself from soft loam to tower thirty feet. Vines thrashed, sorting themselves out. Tucker willed the orange monster forward. The roots stepped out, rolling smaller pumpkins out of the way as four tons of vegetable heaved down the dirt road.

The giant walked with a bobbling gait, its center of gravity over the huge tap root. The main vines quested forward, grasping trees, fence posts and boulders like a child exploring.

The High Sheriff’s patrols kept gawkers at a distance. From his perch, Tucker marveled at the giants being driven or guided to the arena.

Colors and shapes marked the choice of seed stock. Pale cream oblongs the size of hay wagons, bright yellowish jack-o’-lanterns without carved eyes or mouths, red gnarly pear shapes, brown-and-green beehives capped with frilly black leaves, corkscrew gourds rising even higher than his pumpkin—all ambling toward the fairgrounds.

The strange parade elicited cheers from thousands of fair-goers. It would be standing room only at the arena. Many were curious about how Warmouth would stack the deck against his main challenger, but everyone hoped to see the old man get his come-uppance.

Tucker’s giant ducked to enter the arena, sinuously flowing to the scales in front of the VIP section, where politicians and community luminaries oohed-and-ahhed at the massive vegetable warrior.

Applause rolled from the roofed grandstand when his name was announced. He saw Hiram Carter waving his hat while toasting the pumpkin from a jug of skull-bust whiskey.

Quiet settled over the crowd when the final two competitors stalked into the high-walled battleground. Crimson banners decorated the pair of monstrously wide blue-black gourds – both entries by Warmouth! The wizened old villain himself guided one of them. He stared uneasily at Tucker’s entry.

Mounted on the other giant was a broad-shouldered handler with a flat impassive face –Dub Thacker. If he possessed emotions, he hid them well. His mount had been carved so that a leather saddle could be cinched into the rind. Iron screws attached to metal plates secured the seat. Tucker winced, imagining the pain the pumpkin must have felt from excessive cutting and drilling.

The first trial of the tournament was the wild vine race, in which competing pumpkins sent their secondary tendrils slithering along a massive trough to wrestle each other. In the aftermath, amidst tons of shredded vines and leaves, winners were advanced to the next level.

Tucker’s massive fighting vines made short work of their opponents. Size, agility, and Tucker’s connection with his mount won out every time. Thacker and Warmouth prevailed in their matches, although the old man struggled to control his broad-sided giant.

 

The free-for-all melee was the final event and the high point of the fair. The audience cheered lustily for the six remaining competitors.

Entrants included Gabby Redfern, who made doe eyes at Tucker from her riding basket decorated with wildflowers and ribbons. She blew him kisses, shouted a greeting, and wished him luck while their giants were waiting to be outfitted with slash-and-smash weapons.

But Tucker knew Gabby would not hold back the purple, warty beast she rode if it could knock his pumpkin to the ground.

The other two, a grower from Dropsy Village Eddy had never seen and a teen in his first tournament, seemed overwhelmed. The kid laughed nervously and sawed too much on the reins of his brown-and-black squash. The older man sweated and had the shakes as he stared at the serrated metal rippers being tied to the roots and vines of his pale pumpkin.

The warring monsters could be maimed or killed in the free-for-all, where the handlers themselves risked life and limb. This was the spectacle fans came to see, what they would talk about throughout the year to come. Juice and blood, flesh and vegetable pulp. Gladiators were urged on with feral screams and curses by neighbors who sat quietly in church pews most Sunday mornings and would never harm a stray cat or dog.

When the armorers came to Eddy’s pumpkin, he waved them off.

The crowd gasped. It had been decades since a competitor had foresworn weapons and opted to fight in the strangler tradition. Thacker and Warmouth laughed uproariously, pointing to their own rind hammers and vine saws.

The starting bell clanged and Tucker set his monster in motion with a thought. The huge plant circled the arena with deceptive speed. He would keep out of harm’s way until the field had been whittled down. He knew Thacker and Warmouth would gang up on the weaker competitors before coming directly at him.

They first attacked the nervous grower from Dropsy Village, who had unwisely turned his back on the pair. Thacker’s huge rind hammer, bolted to his pumpkin’s foremost vine, slammed the side of the frog-belly white gourd and burst it with a single stroke.

Warmouth’s scissoring saw slashed for good measure, in the process cutting through the wicker basket and dumping the rider into a flood of seeds and pulp. Attendants ran to pull him out before he drowned under the innards of his own pumpkin.

Tucker circled his giant around the fighters. The herculean pumpkin was taking measure of its opponents. It leaped and pirouetted, amazingly quick and nimble for such a behemoth.

Vines flicked out at the other pumpkins but left no sign of damage. Tucker danced his strange steed around the arena, within reach of Thacker and his boss. They ignored him and focused on the hapless teenager.

The boy had seen enough though. He reined in his lurching pumpkin near the arena wall to find a judge and concede. But a swipe from Thacker’s hammer took out the tap root and support vines and the brindled monster crashed to the ground. Warmouth waded in, stomping anything that moved, including the kid. The arena shook with a blood roar, then a cheer as Tucker diverted Warmouth’s attention long enough for the youngster to hobble his way up and over the protective wall.

Meanwhile Gabby was stalking him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the warty gourd rear back a main vine and whip a lengthy serrated blade at his pumpkin’s root mass

The crowd stomped and shouted as his giant ducked, the saw ripped thin air, and the pumpkin leaped to resume its crazy circuit of the arena.

Gabby saluted him and grinned sweetly. This was the moment Warmouth chose to strike, battering her pumpkin with the wide body of the squat monstrosity he rode. The impact threw her off into writhing vines, pumpkin guts, and rind fragments.

Thacker approached from the other side, searching for her in the debris. The heavy hammer, dripping pulp, lifted high in the air, about to smash her like a bug.

There was a collective intake of breath from the stands, then tense silence. The life of a favorite competitor hung in the balance.

It was then Tucker’s giant leaped higher than the arena walls and with a thunderous crash came down with full force and weight on Warmouth’s mount, leaving the battler cracked and stumbling, oozing juices and collapsing in on itself. The old man cursed and screamed as he realized he was being tromped by the son of the man he hated, and all his riches and influence couldn’t help him – he’d been strapped in too tightly. Disappearing in the debris of his giant, the scream of rage suddenly cut off. Warmouth had been crushed by the weight of his own pumpkin.

Thacker’s pumpkin stood motionless as he decided what to do. Tucker didn’t wait. He sent his gladiator whirling across the arena like a spinning top to smash the side of its foe, then reached out with secondary vines to pluck at the screws and metal plate of the saddle and pull it free. Thacker went flying and the blue-and-black monster collided with the wall. With no rider in control, the giant wobbled wildly before folding its vines, curling its roots, and sinking to the dusty arena floor.

 

Before thousands of cheering spectators, Tucker’s giant stood tall and proud, powerful fighting vines curled around it.

A ladder was fetched and leaned against the champion pumpkin, but before he could climb down a lovely figure raced up with a reward of hugs and kisses.

Gabby raised his arm in victory and shouted, “I won’t be riding solo no more. It’s gonna be a team effort from now on!”

“Yes ma’am,” said the bemused champion.

The arena rocked with approving laughter.

 

No ticket holder went away from the Tempest Fall Fair’s pumpkin melee disappointed. Brutal interests had been served with blood and death. Monstrosities had been laid to rest, except for seeds capable of producing stronger and more massive plants next spring.

And a wedding was in the offing.

When the dust settled and evening shadows lengthened in the arena still filled with pumpkin debris, a lone farmhand arrived with a cart to dig out Warmouth’s corpse. No one had claimed it.

Tucker would bury his bitter rival in an act many thought of as charity. The grave was dug on the farm that the conniver and cheat had tried to steal.

“It’s the least I can do for the old devil,” Tucker would say.

But next April, and every year after, when the soil quickened, he would plant a pumpkin seed on Warmouth’s grave and await germination. When the seedling broke the soil’s surface and grew, a midnight chant from Grandma Eddy’s canticle would animate the pumpkin that would be entered into the Tempest Fall Fair in Warmouth’s name.

And lose.

While the giant fighting pumpkins from Tucker and Gabby Eddy’s farm would continue to bring home trophies, into the next generation and beyond — for as long as seeds ran true to the blood and spirit.

 

 

“PUMPKIN RIDERS”  © Steve Oden, first published here in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores, October 29 2021
Steve Oden started writing speculative fiction of all types when he retired after a 40-year career in journalism, editing and publishing at newspapers and magazines. His work has appeared in print and online venues and in short story collections published in the U.S. and overseas. Oden writes from Wartrace, Tennessee.

illustration by Fran Eisemann, stock used from public domain

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