Not so many years ago, this village of Reddersville was Iroquois land, and when I close my eyes, I can picture two dancing medicine men smudging some of the braves. The thick smoke of the sweetgrass curling around painted bodies, beads of sweat on stern foreheads, in one of those common clearings where the fragrance of decaying herbs is as strong as the bittersweet ash.
Golden grasses are rippling as the wind races off to the autumn flame of the surrounding sugar maples. And the fir trees are the arrowheads of angry spirits, piercing the amber sky. Whatever visions the medicine men have of these spirits are carried off, swirling with the leaves in a dust devil, and they spin until the most frightening warrior stands at the clearing's edge.
Twilight is a hawk returning, and when the birches are midnight ghosts the braves are following the warrior and an avalanche of stars, hunting with the darkness . . .
. . . but that's when I close my eyes. The trouble starts when I open them. Then my visions are of an evil spirit. It has touched my life with a bloody hand. One of the spirit's evil deeds was a strangling, and some people thought I was the killer. The lawmen liked my profile - Owen Fairhawk, 36, half Indian, known to drink on occasion, ill-tempered sometimes fishing guide who works on just about any sort of temporary job, and a bachelor.
Yeah, the lawmen were eyeing me like a coyote would eye a prize turkey, but I'm not the guy they see. I see all things and accept them. I don't want to give people an Indian Utopia they couldn't appreciate, but I refuse to share their burdens and crave what their world says I need. If I can sit on a cliff, smile and spice my dreams with memories, then kernels of gold fall from the sun and I become as rich with feelings as the temperate forest is with its autumn coat.
I know that much of the suffering in modern life is a product of desire, and that no happiness is brewed in a cauldron of desire, but a person who desires nothing - not even a sunny afternoon - is a person who has lost the dream and made nirvana irrelevant by not desiring it above all things. Sure, there's some dark lust in my own inner nirvana, and I have my needs, but I don't let anything get a warped grip on me. I'm in control, a far cry from the wild Indian the lawmen think I am.
The evil spirit awoke about a year ago, in the summertime, striking the Reddersville area with a wave of violent deaths. Weakened by the heat wave I was working only as a fishing guide in the breezier waters.
The day of the first killing, I was at home. I have a cottage on Beartooth Bay. It's more like half a cottage connected to a trailer and it's an example of the kind of all-trades work I can do. I even built a small peaked roof for the trailer. But I don't care much for houses, I like the outdoors and I spend a lot of time in my boats. My boat fishin' superstition is often booked up, but on that day, she was docked with my canoe and rowboat.
I was resting on the shore in the shade of some sumac and I was at my best; though the heat had sapped all thoughts of work from me, it had also drained me of any desire for alcohol. The waters of the bay rippled in the sun like silk and ran from a deep blue to a milky blue out where the heat haze rose up like a Venetian blind to hide the far shore. A row of poplars ran up to the highway on one side of the cottage and a farmer's deadwood fence ran a zigzag course beside my drive on the other. I was fairly isolated - a fallow field lay over the fence and it held only dense grass and weeds. Across the field, I could see the red side of Dave Burns' barn, and a cloud of dust suspended over Highway 6 where it became visible as it curved around the bay.
Blinding brilliance descended on my eyes as the sun fattened, flared and began to set, and then a rose tint spread through the haze, giving the sky a deeper dimension. A flock of crows flew like arrows over the field and poked holes in the dust cloud. I thought of how crows always get active when the weather is about to change. Reddersville is crow country though and the dust cloud had unusual buoyancy that didn't spell humidity or rain.
I watched the sun fling its tongue across the horizon while dust devils began to merry-go-round by the road. My thoughts were wandering as a red station wagon came into view, then something weird woke me. A small reddish dust devil rode down and hit the car, exploding its back windshield and causing the driver to make an emergency stop on the shoulder.
The dust cloud mushroomed and darkened in a star pattern, and then a huge dust devil appeared and whirled in a wide circle around the car. The headlights came on and illumined a screen of dust that resembled a TV test pattern. I got up and had to shield my eyes to block a shimmering desertlike landscape in the sunset sky. Down in the dark patch strange faces were appearing and disappearing in the whirling dust. They were faces you would see on a totem pole or masks, similar to some of the visions artists have of Raven, Coyote and warrior spirits, but with strong, animate expressions of howling wickedness and laughter.
Without hesitation, I ran and leapt over the fence for a better look, but as I landed in the clover the faces faded and the dust devil broke up. Only the larger cloud remained, a huge umbrella shading the wagon. A woman got out of the driver's door cautiously. She had naturally windblown blond hair, tanned shoulders and wore a light summer dress. A gust of wind revealed most of her legs as she stood behind the car, checking the damage.
I began to walk toward her, unconsciously avoiding patches of burs and nettles. I was a ways into the field when I saw her shielding her eyes and looking at something down the road. I guessed that she wouldn't see much more than glare and shadow against the blaze of the sunset.
She had feminine innocence that no doubt sent many men stumbling to her rescue. Before I could make a solid guess at her character her features stilted with fright. Since I couldn't see what she was scared of I quickened my pace. Whatever it was, it caused her lean back against the car, like she was too terrified to run. With a lot of ground to cover, I began to sprint to her aid.
Shards of fiberglass from the windshield made jewels on the asphalt. The wind played at her dress. I had covered half the field when I saw her attacker. It was a tall column of dust, and in the swirl were mutilated half-human faces. They were like evil animal gods, long and distorted with anguish.
She screamed and the column seemed to hear her; it halted its spin long enough to leave a tall man standing in front of her. He wore cowboy boots and torn jeans, his chest was bare except for a mat of scar tissue. Stringy black hair and stubble partly hid his sharp-featured face. It was hard to put a finger on his race. I guessed that other people might call him a gypsy for lack of a better term.
Silence fell on the girl like a shadow, and mesmerism glazed her eyes as he stepped up to her and put his hands on her neck. I yelled for him to stop, but my words were lost in a tunnel of wind. I was forced to watch him strangle her gently, and then violently break her neck. A sick form of love welled in his eyes, like he was mad and had killed his own daughter. Blood came lightly to her lips and he kissed her fiercely, then he eased his grip on her and let her fall against the car. His fangs glistened with blood as she slid to the roadside, then he just stood there and looked at his crooked hands, relishing what he'd done.
He turned to face me just as I was leaping over the ditch, and he had a faraway look and an expression like he couldn't care less. He didn't even move to defend himself. I gave him a flying check and he fell over the body and rolled on the asphalt. Giving him no chance to recover I jumped on his chest with heavy boots and then stomped at his groin, continuing to lay heels on him until I was doing a dance on his face, wishing my feet were jackhammers so I could break every bone in his body. Then he caught my right foot and bit it hard, ending the good times.
My foot was bleeding. His teeth were razor sharp. Staggering back, I let out a howl of pain. Like a spooked pheasant, he flew up and felled me with a vicious jab to the throat. Looking up from the ground, I saw him flanked by a steep wall of twilight and that grisly column of dust. He grinned, showing his fangs then he turned to the station wagon and started booting it. He worked his way around the car, knocking out the lights and windows. When he went to work on the doors, it sounded like a demolition derby.
Shaking my punch-drunk head, I got up and found him ready for me. He had his belt off and I could see he planned on hammering me a couple with the buckle. The buckle was glowing red, a hot branding iron, and I could see, the name DUST DEVIL traced on it in white-hot silver. Since it was woven from snakeskins it snapped easily, as if it were a whip, and I ended up doing a crazy dance, ducking and staggering back, trying to avoid the humiliation of being branded.
It took all of my agility, but I managed to pull a side dodge, move in and rise with a backfist strike to the bridge of his nose - a deadly hit that should've put him out. It didn't, but I did manage to sweep-trip him before staggering back winded.
Dust Devil rolled up fast and both blood and smoke were pouring from his injured nose. Fury was in his eyes, then he dodged in so fast he was a blur and sent the buckle straight at my cheek.
I caught it barehanded, and it put my whole body in a fiery hell. My palms smoked and sizzled like frying meat, and my own scream seemed to come from a distance as I twisted wildly. I was strong enough to break away, but not strong enough to stay up. Smoke went up my nose as I went down.
My head spinning, I scrambled to my knees and saw a huge shadow sailing for me - it was an approaching truck. I raised my hands in a defensive gesture that could do little to save me from a future as a hood ornament.
Brakes squealed, the truck stopped inches from me and a last beam from the setting sun spotlighted the area. I turned and glanced back, expecting to see Dust Devil jump me, but he wasn't there. The dust was gone
Dave Burns, the farmer next door, had seen me dashing across the field to the rescue, and the tourist driving the Blazer had seen a shadowy figure throw me out front of him and disappear on the forested side of the highway. If it had been otherwise patrol officer Jim Orland would've charged me with murder. After I told about the supernatural occurrence and being painfully on fire without being burned, Jim cocked a cynical gray eye, pulled on his whisker shadow and said that I wasn't a sober witness. Since Reddersville can't afford a police force the murder case was shared by the provincial police and Orland's Mounties - the upshot of this being that it made it certain I would eventually be charged. I decided to go on a bender while I still had some free time.
There's an abandoned Starlight Inn on the Sand Hill Road near the outskirts of town, and I sleep there when I'm drinking around Reddersville. I'm a menace on the road even when I'm sober, so I left my wheels at home. It was 3 a.m. when the need sent me wandering down the roadside. I had a small pack and the pockets of my hunter's pants stuffed with supplies for my motel room. The moon had strong arms of wind that were sweeping the treetops, and they rustled vastly and sent the odd gust down to tear at me. The shadows went on forever, dream scenery in my mind, and for some reason it came to me that all men are ghosts, bound to the few roads they will wander. Most men don't die, they slowly wink out. I believed myself to be stronger, like a spirit taking new faces from the earth. It is true that few men interested me then and few men interest me now. I like women, but men I've always seen as rivals that I tolerate. To me Dust Devil was more interesting than the heroes we're taught to worship.
A week went by, and it was as empty as the roaring in a seashell. Sort of a blur. I remember smoke in my eyes and the Silver Mule Saloon's dancers, punctuated by the riverbed taste of hangovers and a harsh sun. What finally killed my thirst was some news about more murders.
A Dwight Yaokum tune that I thought was great was playing on the jukebox and a stripper was dancing Egyptian-style for a fathead sitting in a cloud of cigar smoke at the table next to me. I thought about hitting him with a chair, and then I ignored him and looked around for some of my regular pals. Georgie was over by the door swallowing a taco. He wiped his chops with a napkin and accidentally on purpose dropped it in some tourist's draft. On spotting me, he walked over, and that's when I got the news.
"It was a very gruesome massacre," he said, shaking his braids and folding his hands with a drunk's reverence. "Up by Weller Creek, yesterday. Four fishing buddies and a French gal. She was strangled, her blood drained. They were beaten to death, heads cracked open like clams. Orland says it's the work of your Dust Devil. Guess it puts you in the clear now, the case is too complex to hang on an Indian."
I smiled so broadly one of the girls came to the table thinking I was signaling her for a dance. Feeling good about being in the clear I got up and went out. Streaks of yellow fire rained from the sun and washed away the grime and sleaze of the hotel. I had a sort of gone feeling where I was aware of my surroundings but everything seemed shot through with numbness, like I was a root stuck in cold earth. I rested on a bench by the river, and the arc of hills surrounding the village rose and fell as I drifted towards sobriety.
Withdrawal brought about vivid dreams that caused me to shiver in the heat, then a bizarre language of feelings filled me and I seemed to know Dust Devil's history. It almost bubbled in my mind. Dust Devil had been the only real witch during the Inquisition and he'd used his powers to lead the men of the church to the chalices of innocent blood that damned them. As the Reformation came about Lucifer was bounced from the holy altars and Dust Devil became a wandering false prophet. He came through the Enlightenment in Europe with the seeds of a new racist doctrine that granted men the right to murder in the name of superiority. It filled the world with the flames of war and the smoke of death camps. As a nihilist author, he revealed that our universe was created by a beautiful act of divine suicide, God in flames. In his heart, he wished for a return of ancient days when he'd taught the art of human sacrifice. Blood had been so plentiful then.
A limestone shelf leans into the water near the abandoned motel and it's one of my favorite fishing spots. I headed up the Sand Hill Road figuring I'd gather my few things, sit by the water until dusk and then return home. Things didn't work out though, the sky unexpectedly began to dim to slate and I was suddenly sure that something was wrong. An ill, dusty wind began rattling through the woods, but the feeling was more than weather, it was dryness inside too.
I could feel the wind sapping my strength as I went around the bend, and I sure didn't like it. In Ontario, the winds are nearly all energetic and exhilarating. The idea of a bad wind was something I hated. Bad winds belonged in Europe, where Dust Devil belonged.
The motel stood out like the last long house, its shingles warped to bark, struggling to remain intact against a background of wind-kicked forest, cold light and boulder-shaped clouds. A Mustang was angled off the drive with one front tire half up the trunk of a fallen poplar. No one was in the car or near it and there was the sense of everything being wrong, but maybe right for an evil being.
A zigzag formation of dust devils skated down from the treetops, whirligiged like tops, and made angry insects out of the litter carpeting the front of the hotel. I felt my scalp lift, and then a scream rose from the bottom of an invisible canyon. Wood burst to splinters and a body crashed through one of the boarded-up windows. It was a man and he landed and rolled between two dust devils. He rose to his hands and knees, and his face was like a smashed strawberry. One of his eyes hung from the socket and the other was swollen shut. He moaned in a sort of hopeless agony then he took a pistol from his belt, put it to the side of his throat and squeezed the trigger. A gust of wind sprinkled the nearby trees with blood drops and he collapsed on his side. Dust whirled into him, his burial had already begun.
I took off over a patch of spongy earth, the idea of getting the gun fueling me. A teenage girl had dashed out the open front door. Her jeans were torn and one side of her head was shaved, but she'd likely done that for fashion. Blood was thick on a jagged incision at the top of her forehead; someone had almost scalped her. She ran, flailing her arms and screaming into the cruel wind. Since she was so thin she looked weird running, like baggy clothes blowing on a line. Her hysteria didn't take her far before Dust Devil stepped out of the motel and used some power of his to slow her to a stop.
He didn't appear to see me at first, and I felt confident with the gun, which I had picked up. It was a Ruger pistol and as I lifted it, Dust Devil caught the motion in the corner of his eye. He turned, his concentration broke and the girl began running again as I took aim.
Dust Devil's thin lips showed white with rage through his shadow of whiskers, and his eyes were chunks of backlit red glass. Smoky dust streamed from his windblown hair. "You," he said in a whisper that was carried to me on the wind. "The loco reincarnation."
He took a gunslinger's step toward me. I didn't feel like screwing around with him so I pulled the trigger, placing a bullet right between his eyes. His head exploded, a geyser of flaming magma, and he took another step toward me, headless.
My jaw went slack and my scalp lifted as a dust devil arced out of the woods and landed on his shoulders. Slowly it compacted to form another head above the gore and lava running on his shirt.
His neck was a mass of scar tissue, but his features were unchanged and he was now smiling cruelly. He pulled a hunting knife from his belt and ran his finger along the blade, taking his time as a way of making my blood run cold. I fired again and this time his skull shattered like china and shards of brilliant glass flew. A third slug winged his knife and it flew like a dart into the trunk of a tree.
A howling rose on the wind. Headless, he held his arms up to the sky. A column of smoke shot up from his neck. I covered my face to block the stinging dust, then the wind whooped and knocked me over with a big hand.
The blow calmed as quickly as it had rose, and I sprang up. Dust Devil was still smoking, a fork of lightning struck him and a new head glowed on his shoulders. This time I tossed the gun away, mainly because his new head was a twin of mine and I was afraid voodoo would happen if I put a bullet in it.
He ran for me like a hungry animal and I side-dodged him and clapped his back to send him face-first to the ground. When he sprang up, I got him with my best punch in the nose, only to find that his head was like hard rubber.
A series of moves followed and in some ways he was a clumsy fighter. He didn't know the weak points like I did. I went for the solar plexus, the balls, the calf, the temple and neck while he used mainly brute force. Things degenerated to a flurry of bad punches and I busted his teeth and ripped my knuckles raw, then my legs were taken out from under me and we rolled and pounded on one another like screwball robots. After about an eternity of it, I broke free, somersaulted to my feet, laid a few boots to his face, and then jumped back before he could chomp on my foot again.
He leapt up and a thousand masks fell from his face to the dust like skins from a snake. We stared each other down like predators, and a million years fell out of his angry eyes and roared through me with the fury of fire and wind. Ancient memories returned. I knew why he hadn't slaughtered me like the rest; I was as old as him, a loco reincarnation and a coyote just like he said. The delusions he'd helped give this age weren't in me for him to claim me as his; I would forever be a renegade Indian and beyond his grasp.
I said before that I see all things and accept them. I accepted Dust Devil then, just like I would've accepted any other beast. He saw that I knew and backed off a step. Then I grinned through split lips, slapped the grit off my thighs and walked away into the dusk, knowing he wouldn't follow. With death over my shoulder and another wheel of time ahead, I saw a vision . . . and it went from ashes to ashes and rose from the dust again.
------ The End -------