“Dowsing for Devils in Arkansas”
by Tom Pawlowski
I suppose I was lucky to be in Arkansas to witness that marvel of nature, the synchronous hatching of Magicicada, a breed of Cicadas that all hatch at the same time just once every thirteen years. But I didn’t feel lucky at the time, at least not the good variety of luck.
My journey to Arkansas started with a research grant to develop an extremely sensitive differential magnetometer to sense the orientation of magnetic dipoles trapped in rock strata for continental drift research. Once I had working units in the field I’d cast about for other applications of the tool and thought of my great uncle, unfortunately no longer alive, who’d made a living dowsing, or water-witching as it was called then in West Virginia. Given my family history, and despite the scientific establishment’s scorn, I had an open mind on the subject. I wondered if I could substantiate the practice using my new tool.
Magnetic materials in lava or sediments align with Earth’s magnetic field like iron filings do near a magnet. My theory was that underground springs or rivers disturb that alignment resulting in minute variations in the local magnetic field that could be of sufficient magnitude to be measured by scientific instruments or possibly even to affect dowsing rods.
I was a physics professor with no summer classes, access to the prototype for the magnetometer, and nothing better to do. So I decided to try to prove that there was a scientific basis to dowsing, and since I was doing it on my own time, none of my snobbish colleagues would know about it.
I found my dowser on the Internet. Merlin Bayard resided in the Boston Mountains region of the Arkansas Ozarks and was a water-witcher of almost mythic prowess. He had a long history of finding sweet sources of near-surface water on land where modern well drillers came up dry. There were also reports of him successfully dowsing for other things, like a homesteader’s grave, where the exact location had been lost to modern memory.
Merlin was my man. I just needed to find him and convince him to let me shadow him. I didn’t try to contact him. It would be harder to turn me down if I showed up in person.
I outfitted a university four wheel drive with my equipment and set out across country to find him.
Merlin leaned casually against a post on the porch of his small wooden home, with his hands gripping the straps of his overalls. He was a big, healthy looking guy, and his gray hair and wrinkles gave a better indication of his seventy years than his physique. He gave me a short nod and a tentative smile as I stepped out of the truck.
“Uh, how do. I’m looking for Merlin Bayard.”
“You found him.”
I put on my friendliest smile and stuck out a hand. “Hi. I’m Will Jenkins.”
He looked me over shrewdly before taking my hand. “What can I do for you Will Jenkins?”
“Well sir, I’m looking for a dowser.”
He pursed his lips and nodded. “You going to drill you a well in the city somewhere?”
I chuckled politely. “No, I’m a scientist studying dowsing. I’d like to shadow you at work and try to measure what you’re sensing with your dowsing rods.”
His smile disappeared. “You mean you’re trying to prove it doesn’t work?”
I was afraid of that. I did some fast talking, told him about my great uncle, explained my theory about how dowsing worked, and tried to assure him that I wanted to prove that dowsing was legitimate.
A half hour later I’d made it as far as a rocking chair on his porch. I’d convinced him that I was legit, but he seemed oddly reluctant to work with me.
“Why don’t you come back in the fall? I’ll probably have some water-witching jobs then.”
I spread my hands apologetically. “I’ll be teaching in the fall. I’m doing this on my own time over the summer. Aren’t you dowsing for anything now?”
He shook his head. “I’m doing some tomorrow. But it’s not something that I’d be willing to bring you along on.”
That struck me as odd. “Why not?”
“Well, I got a couple of problems. The first is that you won’t take what we’re doing seriously. The second is that once you see what we’re doing you’ll probably turn tail and run. And then there’s the danger and all. Don’t know as it’s fair to expose you to that.”
I rolled my eyes. “Danger? I can’t imagine there being much danger involved in dowsing. But I’ve come a long way to do this. I’d accept some risk for the opportunity to verify my theory.”
A big grin spread across his face as I spoke. “You can’t imagine is right.” He took a deep breath and blew it out slowly while he considered my plea. “All right. You can come with me on two conditions. In for a penny in for a pound. If you come with me tomorrow you’ve got to see it through till the next day, no matter how crazy what we’re doing sounds or what happens. And you’ve got to treat us with respect. No laughing or making fun.”
I stuck out my hand. “I accept those conditions.”
He held his hand back for a minute. “Will, I ain’t kidding about the danger. You could get killed tomorrow, or worse. We think we got a good plan this time, but we’ve lost people in the past.”
That made me stop and think, but I was determined to try my theory. “You are going to be dowsing as part of this?”
“Yep. And if we got things figured right, you’ll have your proof by tomorrow night. But it really will be dangerous.”
His mysterious warnings only further aroused my curiosity. There was no way I was backing out. I reached farther and he reluctantly took my hand.
We bounced up a rough dirt road through deep forest. We were in my truck because it was full of my equipment. Merlin’s equipment took up part of one large hand, it being a pair of three-foot-long lengths of one-eighth-inch iron rod, with six inches bent to a ninety-degree angle. They weren’t even that straight. They’d obviously been bent and re-straightened a few times. Precision equipment they were not.
Three generations of farmers awaited us on the porch of a rustic country farmhouse. The two younger ones came out to greet us. The third guy, slowly rocking on the porch and occasionally spitting an arc of rich brown tobacco juice over the rail, didn’t seem to notice us.
Merlin introduced me to Clyde and Justin Oakley, the owner of the farm and his son. They didn’t offer to shake hands and Clyde gave Merlin a decidedly hostile look. “You want him knowing what we’re doing here?”
Merlin nodded. “I do. He thinks he can use a scientific instrument to do what I do.” He spoke over Clyde’s objection. “Clyde, I probably ain’t going to be here next time, and there’s no one else dowsing around here anymore. What’re you going to do then?”
Clyde had no response, but his face clearly expressed what he thought I should do with my instrument.
Merlin pointed at me emphatically. “If he can measure what the dowsing rods show, then maybe we got a chance to lick this thing.”
Clyde spit into the dirt and rubbed over it with one foot. “I don’t like it.”
Justin looked at me hopefully. “Maybe Merlin’s right Pa.” He gestured at my loaded truck. “Maybe his equipment will do a better job of locating the tunnels. And he can help us when Merlin’s too old to dowse.”
Justin ignored me. “Besides, maybe it’s time we brought scientists into this. I don’t know why we kept it secret so long anyway.”
“What kind of tunnels?”
Clyde ignored me too. “We kept it secret because we don’t want to sound like a bunch of ignorant hillbillies. People like him will just laugh at us.”
“They might if we just told people about it. But he’s here. He’ll see it with his own eyes. If we got a real scientist as a witness they won’t be able to laugh at us.”
Clyde gave me a scornful look. “Provided he don’t run at the first sign of trouble.”
I shook my head. “I won’t. I’m in for a penny in for a pound. Right Merlin?”
Merlin looked at Clyde. “He says he is Clyde. Why don’t we give him a chance?”
Clyde still looked unhappy. “Well, time’s a wasting. We’d best get started.”
An hour later my equipment was calibrated for local conditions, and we were standing in a field of calf-high soybeans. The farmhouse stood in the center of a roughly circular field about half a mile across. Beyond the edge of the field was virgin forest. The plan was to circle the field about a hundred feet in from the forest, dowsing for tunnels. They still didn’t trust me enough to tell me why there might be tunnels under farmland.
Merlin had his rods stuck out in front of him and pointed in the direction he was going to walk. I was fifty feet behind because I didn’t want any electronics or magnetized metal the others might be carrying to affect my instruments.
Merlin looked over his shoulder. “You ready Will?”
We started to walk. I kept my eyes on the screen of the laptop that rode in a harness strapped to my torso and tried to keep the sensor array, that was mounted on the short boom I held in my left hand, a consistent distance over the furrowed ground.
We’d started east of the house, pretty much straight out from the front porch. We’d only gone a couple of hundred yards when Merlin yelled. “Whoa. There’s a big one.”
I glanced up from my display to see Merlin’s rods pointed straight to the sides. Justin rushed in to plant one of those flags made from a rectangle of plastic stuck to a piece of wire.
“Justin,” I called out, “just mark the spot in the dirt for now. I don’t want that flag to throw off my detector.”
He nodded and dragged his foot to make a big X. Then he, Clyde and Merlin walked off to let me pass over the same spot. My heartrate rose and my palms started to sweat. This was the moment of truth. I’d seen some minor variations in magnetic field, but nothing that really stood out from the noise floor. But when I got to the X in the dirt my indicators spiked. “All right. I got it too.” That got a whoop from Justin and a raised eyebrow from Clyde.
They came over and I played back the time history from the last thirty seconds so that they could see how strongly my instrument had responded at the same spot that Merlin’s rods indicated. I backed up and walked over the same area, this time without stopping. “My instruments say the anomaly is about three feet across.”
Justin looked over my shoulder at the display. “How do you know that?”
“It uses GPS to determine the sensor’s position real time. When we get done here I’ll be able to show you a magnetic map of the whole field. I can even overlay it on a Google Earth satellite photo.”
“Cool. I’d like to see that.” Justin had clearly come over to my side.
Clyde wasn’t impressed. “Well that’s fine, but I’m still going to stick in one of my little flags.”
Merlin moved about twenty feet closer to the forest. Walking parallel to our original line, he got another indication. I did the same and got one too. Clyde planted another flag. The line through both flags pointed right at the house. Clyde and Justin exchanged uneasy looks.
The straight line to the house looked suspicious to me. “You got any buried wire out here?”
They all shook their heads.
“Sewer or water lines?”
That got a laugh. “No such thing out here in the country.”
“So you think it’s a tunnel.”
Clyde nodded his head slowly. “Yep.” He didn’t look happy.
“Did you dig the tunnel?”
“Is there any mining around here?”
“So someone dug a tunnel under your field?”
“Oh. You mean an animal or something.”
They all laughed. “Yeah, or something.”
Merlin walked back to the original track. “Let’s get back to work.”
By noon we’d made three full loops, each one about a hundred yards closer to the house. We both detected the ‘tunnel’ going in a straight line from the forest to the house. I couldn’t have been happier with the correlation between Merlin’s dowsing and my instrumentation. But I needed proof that we had both detected something.
About then Clyde’s brothers, Earl and Buddy, showed up in a truck pulling a backhoe on a trailer. They were as excited to see me there as Clyde had been.
Clyde got them started digging a hole far out in the field at one of the little flags while we finished walking our circles. Apparently damage to the crops wasn’t an issue because they drove right over them.
I was excited to see the backhoe, thinking that they were going to dig down to the tunnel, but more than concerned to find that they were only going down about three feet to set charges.
“Charges?” I said.
Even though Clyde had gone to great lengths to keep me in the dark he still looked at me like I was an idiot. “Yeah, dynamite to collapse the tunnel.”
“Why do we want to collapse the tunnel?”
“To kill what’s in it.”
That’s when I started to get nervous that I had gotten myself into something I would later regret. Dynamite and killing? Visions of Hatfield and McCoy style feuds passed through my head. “We’re not killing people are we Clyde?”
They all laughed kind of meanly. Only Merlin had the decency to explain. “We ain’t going to kill any people Will. We’re trying to keep people from being killed. I told you it would be dangerous, and you assured me you were in for a pound, remember?”
Merlin slapped me on the shoulder. “Okay, let’s keep walking our circles to see where this tunnel goes.”
By late afternoon we’d finished plotting the course of the tunnel. It ran in a straight line from the forest to the house. Earl and Buddy had dug five equidistant holes along the line of the tunnel. The nearest was less than a hundred feet from the house.
My concerns over what we were doing completely swamped my earlier excitement about the correlation between Merlin’s dowsing and my equipment.
Justin and Clyde opened the barn and started dragging out equipment. It started to look like a major military operation. Justin set up a big gasoline powered generator and a number of arrays of lights on stands. Clyde had a box of dynamite, reels of wire and a complex looking blasting box. Clyde’s brothers brought out guns, lot of guns, and lots of ammunition. Merlin grimly oversaw the operation.
In the bottom of each hole Clyde dug a cylindrical cavity just big enough for six sticks of dynamite standing upright. He inserted the explosives and covered them over with dirt. I winced as he stomped on the ground to tamp the soil tightly. While the brothers backfilled, Clyde carefully ran the wires back to the detonator box near the house.
By about seven o’clock the sun was getting low in the sky and the Magicicadas were starting to sing. We went around to the back of the house where Clyde’s wife April and their daughters May and June were setting out a meal on some picnic tables. They helped Grampa Oakley take a seat and put a plate of food in front of him.
We shared a delicious home cooked meal and a nice chat. It was a relief to do something so normal after the outright weirdness of the afternoon.
By the time we’d finished, the sun had sunk into a bank of clouds and we sat in lawn chairs sipping beers and enjoying a colorful sunset. I decided it was time to push the issue and try to get some answers. “So, what’s in the tunnels?”
The guys did a fairly comical routine in which everyone looked at everyone else in turn with their eyebrows going up and down. Apparently they came to a silent consensus because Clyde answered. “Red devils.”
I stared at him for the duration of two or three well-spaced blinks while I processed ‘red devils’. “You don’t mean Indians do you?”
They all chuckled and shared ‘what a moron’ expressions. Merlin finally answered. “No.”
Justin self-righteously added, “besides, we use the term Native Americans around here.”
Clyde ignored him. “I mean red devils, like in the bible. They come up out of the ground every thirteen years, same as them damned Cicadas, and drag good people underground with them.”
I could feel a grin starting against my will. Merlin cut in quickly. “Remember our agreement.”
I settled myself down. “Okay.” I needed more information, but it was really hard to come up with a sensible question that wouldn’t offend them. “You mean it’s actually Satan?”
Clyde looked a little uncomfortable. “Nah. It ain’t Satan himself. It’s more like his minions.” His brothers nodded solemnly. Justin and Merlin exchanged doubtful looks.
Merlin jumped in. “Some people think that.” He stopped Clyde’s objection with a raised hand. “And everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, ain’t they Clyde?”
He turned back to me. “There’s no doubt this is plain evil at work, but I don’t think they’re biblical devils. However it could be the origin of the biblical stories, at least the description of the devil and the idea that he comes from under the Earth. I think they’re intelligent insects that live underground and hatch out every thirteen years. They probably used to be all over, but died out where the human population grew, and now just live in sparsely inhabited areas like this.”
“And they take people?”
“Not just people. They take livestock too, probably wild animals.”
“What do they do with them?”
“They eat them,” Clyde threw in.
Merlin shook his head. “We don’t know for sure. I think they probably bury them and lay eggs in them.”
This was too creepy. “And they look like devils?”
Merlin nodded, “Kind of. They’re man shaped and sized, red tending to black. Kind of shiny looking. They’ve got little horns and elongated faces that look more like insect’s than human’s. In fact that’s what they look like, big red insects that walk on two feet.”
“You’ve all seen them?”
Everyone nodded, even Justin, who must been just a child thirteen years ago.
I thought I had them. “Have you ever killed any of them?”
They all nodded again. “Lots of them,” Clyde bragged.
I came in for what I thought was the kill. “How come you didn’t save the bodies for science, or the authorities, or whatever?”
Clyde gave me a nasty superior grin. “Cause they burn up to nothing but ash when they die.”
Of course, what was I thinking? In every good occult story, whether its vampires or werewolves or apparently red devils, all of the evidence is consumed in flames.
“That’s why I think they’re biblical.” Clyde stated solemnly. “Them burning up don’t make sense otherwise. No mortal animals or insects do that.”
I shook my head in disbelief and more than a little relief. I was kind of looking forward to the explosions now that I knew we wouldn’t be killing anything but some local superstitions. But I couldn’t shake that uneasy feeling that something was going to happen, something in which I might regret being involved.
Merlin must have seen the apprehensive look on my face. He slapped me on the thigh. “In for a pound right? You don’t have to believe it all now. Just hang in for the night.”
I nodded dumbly and we all got up to continue our preparations.
I stood way back as they finished setting the explosives. I wanted nothing to do with dynamite, particularly in the hands of farmers who I assume did not come by it legally.
It’s funny how fear and anxiety are contagious. I really didn’t believe that we were going to suffer the attack of the red devils that night, but I couldn’t help but share the tension and even fear as everyone went about their preparations with utter seriousness and obvious apprehension.
The buzzing of Cicadas was so loud that we had to raise our voices to be heard. Their endless grating is annoying at best, but when you’re feeling anxious, that fingernails-on-the-blackboard screech feeds your nervous tension until you want to scream.
The dark didn’t help my nerves either. The moon had not yet risen, and here in the Arkansas Ozarks, nights with no moon are beyond just dark. I might have been able to see a little by star light except that my eyes never acclimated because of the banks of lights set up all around the farmhouse. They cast bright light for a hundred feet in all directions, but made the darkness beyond even more profound and menacing.
A series of booms echoed through the hills, loud enough to disturb the Cicadas for a moment. Clyde stopped working to listen to the dying echoes. “That must be them blasting at the McAllister place. What time is it Will?”
I turned to get my watch in the light. “Almost eleven.”
“Shit. Let’s get going.” Justin was getting nervous.
Merlin’s voice was quiet and soothing. “Calm down. It don’t start until after the moon rises, the night after the Cicadas start singing, every thirteen years. And the moon’s not supposed to rise until midnight”
“Well maybe their watches ain’t synchronized with ours.”
Like Merlin, Clyde had been through it before. “Hell and damnation son. We got a whole hour. Those fellers may have set off their charges too early.”
Nevertheless, they increased the pace. Earl and Buddy tamped soil down over the last of the buried charges, the one closest to the farmhouse, while Clyde rolled wire out to the detonator box. Clyde waited until the backhoe was clear and we’d all gathered around before attaching the wires to the box.
“Okay son, run over and tell Ma and the girls that we’re going to fire the charges.” Justin sprinted to the house and back in less than a minute.
Clyde looked around to be sure that we were all there. “What time is it now?”
“Okay let’s do it. Everybody ready?”
There was a chorus of yesses.
Pulling a chain from around his neck, he carefully inserted the key that hung from it into a slot on the detonator box. He turned the key and a green light came on. He looked around one more time to be sure that we were all ready and bellowed, “fire in the hole,” loud enough to be heard in the house. Finally, he lifted the cover over a large red button and pressed it.
I heard five loud bass thumps about one second apart, the first occurring in the distance, the rest coming closer until the last one went off within the circle of light, sending a geyser of dirt fifty feet into the air. We all cheered. There was something about those explosions going off that released tension. Even the damned Cicadas shut up for a while.
Clyde made everyone wait until he had disarmed the detonator before approaching the crater nearest us. The farmhouse door opened and white faces peaked out. Clyde scowled. “Get back in that house and don’t come out until I tell you it’s all clear.” The door slammed without a word.
The crater was a hole about six feet across and two deep with a raised ridge all the way around. What shocked me was the depression a foot or more deep and four feet wide that ran straight out of the dark, through the crater and under the porch of the house, right on the path of the anomaly that I’d measured.
“Goddamn. Look at that. They tunneled right under the house. They ain’t never done that before.”
There really was a tunnel. Even though I’d helped survey its path I hadn’t actually believed it. I’d assumed we’d found an underground stream or something similar that caused the magnetic anomaly I’d seen on my instruments. For at least the tenth time that night I asked myself what I’d gotten into.
The depression disappearing into the dark beckoned to us. We grabbed the rifles we’d left standing against the house and headed into the field. A couple of the steadier hands kept their flashlights on the depression. The nervous ones, me included, shined them across the dark fields for reassurance that we were alone. The Cicadas had started their song again, and it got louder and more annoying the closer we got to the forest edge.
We passed each of the craters in turn. There was no doubt that the tunnel had collapsed over its whole length, at least to the edge of the field. We didn’t venture into the forest to see how much farther it went. It was too creepy out there. Just the thought of going into the forest gave me goosebumps.
We were standing there like idiots congratulating ourselves when the Cicadas abruptly stopped singing again. We looked to the forest and saw that it had started to brighten with the light of the rising moon.
“Uh-oh. Let’s get back to the house.”
We turned to start back but stopped when we heard something. I could feel that crawling sensation of fear descending my back and my breathing stopped involuntarily as I reluctantly turned back to the forest.
It was a coarse grating sound, like the Cicadas but louder, deeper, and unlike their constant pitch buzzing, this rose and fell in complex frequency modulation. I thought that if that came from a Cicada it was a damned big one.
Then another one answered. That’s exactly what it sounded like, a question and an answer.
Someone whispered, “back to the house quick.”
We started at a fast walk. Then we heard more rasps behind us and the sound of something big forcing its way through the forest. We broke into a run.
Justin was looking over his shoulder as he ran and fell hard. His father stopped, snapped up his gun, and aimed and fired. I didn’t look back but the flash of something exploding behind us briefly lit up the field. I probably would have screamed, but I was too busy breathing.
I heard Clyde behind me. “Got one.”
I have never in my life run so fast and felt so slow. Fear made time slow down to the point where I was conscious of every step, every breath, and was frustrated that each came too slowly. I concentrated on not making Justin’s mistake. I kept the flashlight pointed in front of me and my eyes on the ground picking out footing. But I desperately wanted to look back to make sure that there wasn’t something right behind me. I’m sure that I couldn’t have stopped myself if I hadn’t been ahead of everyone else.
I finally made it back into the circle of light around the farmhouse. The others came in right behind me, first the two brothers, then Justin, and then Clyde.
We all looked at each other with relief. Then I realized something was wrong. “Where’s Merlin?”
“Shit. The devils must have got him.” Everyone but me ran back into the darkness. I suffered through a crisis of courage and conscience for a few seconds before following. The darkness closed in around me except for the spot of light thrown by my flashlight and the other lights bobbing ahead. I could hear a concentration of loud grating. It was where the others were headed.
I heard a few shots, then saw an intensely bright flash of ruddy light and heard a small concussion. As I approached the group I heard more shots and there was another explosion.
I finally got there and saw flashlights spotlighting a group of red devils dragging an unconscious or dead Merlin toward the forest.
I couldn’t believe it. They really were red devils. They were unnervingly similar to depictions of religious devils: dark red, shiny, man-like, with small curved horns over a face that was frighteningly human in composition, yet clearly insectile in origin. The shininess no doubt came from the fact that their outer surfaces were hard like an insect’s carapace or external skeleton. And they had vicious looking multiply jointed tails with what looked like stingers on the end, more like a scorpion’s than the sinuous tails typically drawn on devils.
I heard a shot and one of the devils holding Merlin’s lifeless arms jerked backward and erupted in a burst of flame and sulfurous smoke. It lit up the whole area with a hellish red glare for a few moments as the entire body was consumed in what I can only surmise was a violent chemical reaction caused by the exposure to oxygen of some highly reactive compound in the internal tissue when the carapace was breached. I even felt a momentary flash of heat on my skin as it lit up.
Another devil gabbed Merlin’s free arm and they continued to drag him toward the looming darkness of the forest wall. I lifted my rifle and sighted on one of the devils, being very careful to keep my aim as far from Merlin as possible. I squeezed the trigger and had the satisfaction of seeing the devil fall. Someone else got the one holding Merlin’s other arm and they both went up in flames. With Merlin down, it was easier to pick off the rest and they all exploded in conflagrations of hellfire and stink.
Merlin was in the clear for the moment, although I could hear more bass grating coming from the forest. In the dying light of a devil’s immolation I grabbed one of Merlin’s arms, Clyde took the other, and we started dragging him back toward the farmhouse. Justin hung his rifle over his shoulder, stepped between Merlin’s legs and lifted one with each hand. With Buddy and Earl covering us we made pretty good time and got back to the house unmolested.
That’s when we heard the screams.
We turned to the house just in time to hear a shot and see an explosion of red flames inside that blew the glass and curtains out of the windows.
Clyde’s face went white and without a word he ran toward the house, Justin right behind him. I stood for a moment frozen in indecision, overlaid with a strong component of terror, and then went after them. I yelled “watch Merlin,” as I ran. Although it felt marginally safer to stay there, Earl and Buddy each weighed at least fifty pounds more than me, and I reluctantly concluded that it made sense that I join Clyde and Justin and leave the brothers to protect Merlin.
I entered a house in shambles and passed straight through to the back door where I could hear the action taking place. Devils must have crossed the fields to the back of the house while we were in the front.
Once outside I saw a large group of figures disappearing into the darkness. Clyde and Justin were in pursuit. I considered firing, but at that distance I couldn’t be sure of missing the humans.
I’d dropped my flashlight while I was dragging Merlin and was forced to plunge into darkness with nothing to guide me but the pitiful screams of April and the girls and Grandpa’s angry bellows. Chambering a shell, I realized that I didn’t know how many rounds were in the magazine to start with, and that I didn’t have any additional ammunition. I wished I’d taken things more seriously.
I heard a pair of shots and in the light of a burning devil saw a large group dragging the family away. It looked like a lot more devils than we’d beaten off to save Merlin, and there were fewer of us to deal with them. I had an unworthy thought or three about retreating to the house, but knew I couldn’t live with myself if I did.
It looked like Clyde and Justin were stopping periodically to fire before advancing again, trying to pick the devils off a few at a time. I caught up with them kneeling to take careful shots and watched a pair of devils explode in clouds of brimstone. We ran together for about fifty yards and Clyde called for a stop. I was breathing so hard I didn’t dare aim at one of the devils dragging a person, and fired at one of the others. I missed, but both Clyde and Justin shot true and two of them exploded.
We started to run again, but after a cacophony of rasps all of the devils not dragging a person turned to attack us. We knelt and started shooting.
Devils went up in flame, but there were still a lot of them coming. I settled down and got three in a row as fast as I could cock and shoot.
Then one was on me. Luckily I couldn’t see it well in the dark or I might have frozen in terror. I saw claws reaching for my face and struck out with the butt of my rifle to knock them away. I contacted and spun the devil around part way. As it turned I felt something snap right in front of my face. I’d forgotten about the damned tail. Sliding my hands down the hot barrel of the gun, I swung it like a baseball bat. I connected with the devil’s shoulder and it went down. I swung again and hit what would be its chest if it was a man. Its carapace cracked, and the stock of the gun penetrated into soft goop inside. The whole thing erupted in my face in a blinding flash of light and scalding steam. My open mouth and sinuses filled with hot sulfurous gasses and I narrowly avoided inhaling by reflex.
Clyde and Justin had just finished off the last of the group that had attacked us and we started off after the rest again. We had to run a long time to catch up. It was too dark for me tell for sure, but I thought that we had to be close to the forest.
Somebody still had a flashlight and spotlighted two devils dragging someone. I carefully sighted the devil on the right and fired in unison with someone else. The figure at which I’d fired erupted, the other didn’t. I lined up for it, but it dropped and exploded before I could get a shot off.
We ran up and saw that it was April. She was unconscious, but still breathing. Justin looked at his dad in desperation. “We’ve got to leave her and go after the rest.”
Clyde’s head swung back and forth between his helpless wife and the darkness that had swallowed the rest of his family, paralyzed by a nearly impossible choice. Justin broke the impasse by taking off. I followed, and heard Clyde swear but come along.
We caught the devils at the edge of the forest and were able to kill the ones holding May and June, but the rest managed to drag Grandpa into the trees. Clyde went in after them. Justin looked at me with horrified eyes and pleaded, “please protect my sisters,” before disappearing into the forest.
I once read that in the seventeen-hundreds the French Academy of Science declared that everything of any importance in science was already known. We would never say something like that now, but I think that most people today, including many scientists, believe it’s true. I might have been guilty of that sin of arrogance myself in the past, but I never would be again. I have newfound respect for the mysterious universe in which we live.
I pounded the steering wheel in frustration. I was a trained scientist, present at an event that, if properly documented, would have stunned the scientific world, and here I was returning to California virtually empty-handed. I’d had my phone with me the whole time, but hadn’t thought to take a single photo with a live devil in it.
I’d collected a pile of ash, but it appeared to be so thoroughly incinerated that I was sure it would be useless for DNA analysis; the best I could hope for would be chemical analysis that I knew wouldn’t prove the existence of the devils. With the evidence that I had, reporting what I’d witnessed to professional scientists would not only ruin my career, it would probably get me committed.
I’d taken pictures of the collapsed tunnel, but I didn’t think that I could publish a paper on the correlation between my instruments and Merlin’s dowsing given how crazy the backstory sounded. Not that I cared about the dowsing anymore. I needed to help those people with the devils.
I guess we were lucky that we only lost Grandpa. But I never want to witness another look of horror like I saw on Clyde and Justin’s faces when they came out of that forest empty-handed.
Next time there would be no casualties. And the whole thing would be documented with cameras, visible light and infrared. There would be traps. We’d need a live captive to convince the skeptics.
It would take a lot of planning and preparation, but it had to be done.
Luckily I had thirteen years before the next time I went dowsing for devils in Arkansas.
Tom Pawlowski is a happily retired engineer pursuing his life-long desire to write creatively. He has been published in Urban Fantasist: Grievous Angel, Penny Shorts and Bards and Sages: Society of Misfit Stories. The author would like to note that the thirteen-year synchronous hatching of the Magi cicada, mentioned in the story, is fascinatingly real.