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Darl Moody didn't give a wet sack of shit what the state considered poaching. Way he figured, anybody who'd whittle a rifle season down to two weeks and not allot for a single doe day didn't care whether a man starved to death. Meat in the freezer was meat that didn't have to be bought and paid for, and that came to mean a lot when the work petered off each winter. So even though it was almost two months early, he was going hunting.
The buck Darl'd seen crossing from the Buchanan farm into Coon Coward's woods for the past two years had a rocking chair on his head and a neck thick as a tree trunk. Coon wouldn't let a man set foot on his land on account of the ginseng hidden there, but Coon was out of town. The old man had gone to the flatland to bury his sister and wouldn't be back for a week.
The cove was full of sign: rubs that stripped bark off maples and birch, scrapes all over the ground where button bucks scratched soil with something instinctual telling them to do so but lacking any rhyme or reason. A mature buck knew exactly what he was doing when he ripped at the ground like he was hoeing a line with his hooves, but the young ones ran around wild. They'd scrape all over the place, trying to add to a conversation they were too inexperienced to understand.
Darl locked his stand around a blackjack oak that grew twenty feet high before the first limbs sprung off. He climbed to a strong vantage and surveyed a saddle of land where early autumn cast patches of the mountains gold in afternoon light. An unseasonable cold snap following one of the driest summers the county had ever seen brought on fall a month ahead of schedule. It was the last week of September, but the ridgelines were already bare. Down in the valley, the trees were in full color with reds and oranges afire like embers, the acorns falling like raindrops. The nights were starting to frost and within a few weeks the first few breaths of winter would strip the mountains to their gray bones.
Darl sipped a pint of whiskey he had stashed in the cargo pocket of his camouflage pants, took off his ball cap and slicked the sweat from his forehead back through a widow's peak of thinning hair shaved close. He scratched at the thick beard on his chin and listened closely for any sign of movement, though just like the past two evenings, he'd yet to see or hear a thing but squirrels. Soon as the sun sank behind the western face, the woods dropped into shadow and it wouldn't be long for nightfall. Still, he would stay because there was no telling when that buck might show, and in full dark, he would find his way out by headlamp.
Somewhere up the hillside, a stick cracked beneath a footstep, and that sound came through his body like current. His heart raced and his palms grew sweaty, his eyes wide and white. Dried leaves rustled underfoot, and behind the scraggly limbs of a dead hemlock he could see a slight shift of movement, but from such distance and in such little light, what moved was impossible to discern. Through the riflescope, he spotted something on four legs, something gray-bodied and low to the ground. The 3-9x50mm CenterPoint was useless in low light, but it was all Darl could afford and so that was what he had.
Sighting the scope out as far as it would extend, he played the shot out in his mind. At two hundred yards, the animal filled a little less than a quarter of the sight picture. He rolled the bolt and pulled back only enough to check that a round was chambered, then locked the bolt back and thumbed away the safety.
A boar hog rooted around the hillside for a meal. Each year those pigs moved farther and farther north out of South Carolina, first coming up from Walhalla ten years back and now overrunning farms all across Jackson County. There was open season on hogs statewide due to the damage they caused. A father and son out of Caswell County were hunting private land between Brevard and Toxaway earlier that year when the son spooked a whole passel of hogs out of a laurel thicket, and the father drew down on a seven-hundred-pound boar. That was right over the ridgeline into Transylvania County. That pig weighed 580 pounds gutted, and they took home more than 150 pounds of sausage alone. Do the math on that at the grocery store.
All his life there'd been a thoughtlessness that came on before the kill. It was something hard to explain to anyone else, but that feeling was on him now as he braced the rifle against the trunk of the oak and tried to steady his aim, a mind whittled back to instinct. A tangle of brush obstructed his view, but he knew the Core-Lokt would tear through that just fine. He tried to get the picture to open by sliding his cheek along the buttstock, but the cheap scope offered little play. When the view was wide, he toyed with the power ring to get the picture as clear as possible, nothing ever coming fully into focus as he drew the crosshairs over the front shoulders. He centered on his pulse then. Breathe slowly. Count the breaths. Squeeze between heartbeats. On five, pull the trigger. The sight wavered as he counted down. Three. Two. Squeeze.
The rifle punched against his shoulder and the report hammered back in waves touching everything between here and there and returning in fragments as it bounced around the mountains. He checked downrange and the animal was felled.
"I got him," Darl said. His body tingled and his head was swimming. Adrenaline coursed through him and left him breathless. He was in disbelief. "I fucking got him."
Darl sucked down the last of the whiskey in one slug, slung his rifle over his shoulder, and climbed his way down with his treestand. In less than an hour, the light would be gone. He knew he had to hurry. There'd barely be enough time to field dress the pig and get it out of the woods before dark. Maybe Calvin Hooper would help him dress out the hog. Cal had a nice hoist for dressing deer, and that sure beat the hell out of the makeshift gambreling stick Darl had at the house. Whether you were scraping hair or skinning him out, a pig was a whole lot easier with two sets of hands working than one. Cal wouldn't want anything for the trouble. Never had. As soon as Darl got that pig back to the truck, he'd head to Calvin's. "I fucking got him," he said.
A small branch of water ran at the bottom of the draw, and through a thicket of laurel, the hillside steepened. Darl staggered through the copse of trees and slowly climbed until he was near the ledge where the pig had fallen. He tripped on a fishing line strung between two dogwoods, a pair of tin cans with rocks inside clanking loud in the limbs above him. Darl froze and looked around. As his eyes focused, he saw rusted fishhooks hung eye level from the trees, trotlines meant for poachers, and he brushed them back one by one as if he were clawing his way through spiderwebs. That's when he saw him. Not a pig but a man, flat on his stomach. A brush-patterned shirt was darkened almost black with blood, his pants the same grayish camouflage as his shirt.
Darl stepped closer, knelt by the man's legs, and placed his hand on the man's left calf. His body was warm, but there was no movement, no sound of breath. In absolute shock, Darl crawled forward and saw where the bullet had entered the man's rib cage. He'd been quartered away, the hollowpoint opening as it cut through him and exited behind his right shoulder, blowing the top of his arm ragged. The man's left arm hung by his side, his hand open, palm up, and Darl could see a few shriveled red berries balanced at the tip of his fingers. He realized then that he was kneeling in a thick patch of ginseng, mostly young, two-prong plants, but some much, much older. The man had an open book bag on the ground beside him with a tangle of thick, banded roots stuffed inside, the thin runners off the main ginseng shoots snarled like a muss of hair.
Darl knew the man shouldn't have been there the same as him. This was Coward land, and they were both trespassing; two poachers who shouldn't have been there, but right there they were. There they were, one of them gone from this world, and the other facing it in its enormity. While he crouched there on hands and knees, dumbstruck as a child, his mind washed between astonishment and terror.
The man's face was turned and angled into the ground. His neck was sunburned red and dotted with dark orange freckles, the back of his hair thick and curled, a yellow blond the color of hay. Darl stepped across the body, being careful not to get his boots in the blood around him. The man wore a camouflage hat with hunter orange lining the edge of the bill, the words caney fork general store stitched across the front. The hat was knocked crooked on his head and Darl grabbed the bill to try and turn the man's face out of the dirt.
As soon as he saw the dark purple birthmark covering the right side of the man's face, Darl knew him. Carol Brewer, who everyone called Sissy, lay stone-cold dead on the bracken-laced ground. Darl had known Carol all his miserable life, a half-wit born to a family that Jesus Christ couldn't have saved. Some people believed Carol's daddy, Red, might've been the devil himself. There was a meanness that coursed through him, a meanness that was as close to pure evil as any God-fearing man had ever known. Carol was the runt of the family and, by most accounts, the only one who ever had a chance. Some thought if he'd been able to get out from under the wings of his father and older brother, Dwayne, he might've been all right, but things didn't work out that way, and Carol wound up being as much trouble as the lot of them.
Darl let go of the cap bill and Carol's head came to rest on the ground. His eyes were closed with his mouth slightly opened. A yellow jacket buzzed by Darl's ear and landed on Carol's lips. The wasp started to crawl into his mouth but Darl swatted the bug away, his fingers brushing Carol's face. He stomped the bee where it hovered above the ground, then looked to the west to gauge what light remained. Darl knew it wouldn't be long, though nightfall didn't matter like it had minutes before. His thoughts were wild with what would come, but he knew the darkness was a gift now and he welcomed it. His mind raced as the night slowly closed around him like cupped hands. He had until dawn to dig a grave.
Dwayne Brewer goose-stepped down the beer aisle of the Franklin Walmart wearing a latex chimp mask he'd found on the floor by the Halloween decorations. The mask was hot and his breathing was loud. The inside smelled of cheap molded rubber and he slicked the nylon hair back through his fingers while he chuckled at a woman who sneered.
She wore pastel-colored scrubs and white tennis shoes, her highlighted hair pulled back in a ponytail. Through the eye slits of the mask, he saw a little girl, maybe six years old, with one of her fingers hooked in the corner of her mouth, standing beside the woman. Dwayne scratched under his armpit with one hand and clawed at the back of his head with the other, hopping around bowlegged like a monkey, and the child laughed. He pulled the mask off and tossed it into the open cooler, his skin cold with sweat as he ran his hand over his face and reached for a case of Bud heavy. Tearing a ragged hole in the cardboard, he fished out a beer and cracked the top.
"Have a blessed day," he said with a wide smile, tilting the open can toward the woman and nodding. She eyed him like the fiend he was, her little girl hiding behind her leg, spellbound with curiosity as the giant man before her swallowed half the can in one tremendous gulp.
The thing about Walmart was that even a man like Dwayne Brewer could go unnoticed. People pushed their buggies with dead-eyed stares, everything sliding by in the periphery. Consumerism scaled this large had a way of camouflaging class.
At the end of the aisle, he squeezed past a beefy gal in tiny shorts who had a baby on each hip and three children running circles around her. One of the kids reached out as he made his next lap and knocked an endcap of Cool Ranch Doritos onto the floor. The woman was in the middle of a conversation with someone she knew, an older woman who had a toddler with her finger up her nose riding in the buggy. The beefy gal kept saying over and over, "Lord no this ain't mine," shaking the child on her left hip, "Me and Clyde stopped after this one," shaking the one on her right, "This here's Sara's. You remember Sara, don't you? This is Sara's little girl, Tammy. She's my niece."
Buggies were banging and lights were flashing and cash registers were beeping and kids were wrestling a Halloween blow-up ghost decoration that was meant to stand in a front yard and the sheer madness of it was enough to send any sane person into a seizure, but Dwayne didn't have a care in this world. He strutted right through the middle of the chaos, smiling because it was Friday and he had a wad of cash in his pocket from pawning five stolen chainsaws and a flat-screen TV.
Black teddies and bloodred lingerie were rolled back to $9.87. He finished that first beer standing by the floor rack running satin through his fingers with his eyes closed, daydreaming about the last woman he'd slept with. When he was finished, he crumpled the can in his fist, balanced it in the cup of a beige-colored bra, and opened another.
From where he stood, he could see straight down the shoe aisle where a kid sat on a bench. The boy reminded Dwayne of his brother. Shaggy, strawberry-blond hair covered his ears, and his red skin was dotted with freckles. Aside from a thick pair of Coke-bottle glasses, black military frames, he could've been a spitting image of Sissy at thirteen or fourteen years old. The kid wore a shabby shirt and grass-stained jeans that were muddied at the knees. He was trying on a pair of gray-colored tennis shoes, some off-brand jobs with Velcro straps. Out of nowhere two boys came around the corner and loomed over him. A boy in tight jeans, with hair that sliced at an angle across his eyes, snatched one of the shoes out of the boy's hands, looked it over, shook his head, and crowed.