When These Mountains Burn

When These Mountains Burn

by David Joy


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Winner of the 2020 Dashiell Hammett Award for Literary Excellence in Crime Writing

Acclaimed author and "remarkably gifted storyteller" (The Charlotte Observer) David Joy returns with a fierce and tender tale of a father, an addict, a lawman, and the explosive events that come to unite them.

When his addict son gets in deep with his dealer, it takes everything Raymond Mathis has to bail him out of trouble one last time. Frustrated by the slow pace and limitations of the law, Raymond decides to take matters into his own hands.

After a workplace accident left him out of a job and in pain, Denny Rattler has spent years chasing his next high. He supports his habit through careful theft, following strict rules that keep him under the radar and out of jail. But when faced with opportunities too easy to resist, Denny makes two choices that change everything.

For months, the DEA has been chasing the drug supply in the mountains to no avail, when a lead--just one word--sets one agent on a path to crack the case wide open . . . but he'll need help from the most unexpected quarter.

As chance brings together these men from different sides of a relentless epidemic, each may come to find that his opportunity for redemption lies with the others.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525536888
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/18/2020
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 257,035
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

David Joy is the author of The Line That Held Us (winner of the 2018 SIBA Book Prize), The Weight of This World, and Where All Light Tends to Go (Edgar finalist for Best First Novel). His stories and creative nonfiction have appeared in a number of publications, and he is the author of the memoir Growing Gills: A Fly Fisherman's Journey and a co-editor for Gather at the River: Twenty-Five Authors on Fishing. Joy lives in Tuckasegee, North Carolina.

Read an Excerpt


Rain bled over the dusty windshield. Raymond Mathis wrung the steering wheel in his fists trying to remember if there was anything left worth taking. The front door of his house stood open and from the driveway he knew who'd broken in. Fact was, if it wasn't nailed down, it was already gone. What pawned easily went first and now the boy stole anything that looked like it might hold any value at all.

Across the yard, the last of Ray's dogs bawled from the kennel. There'd been a time when he bred the best squirrel and coon dogs ever to come out of Jackson County, a line of black-and-tan mountain feists that'd tree anything that climbed. He'd raised beagles to run rabbits through bramble back before outsiders riddled the land with no trespassing signs, and this was the last of them: a lean bitch named Tommy Two-Ton who was grayed in the face and shook on her hind legs as she balanced against bowed chicken wire.

Crossing the yard, Ray was thankful the boy had at least put the dog up this time. The hound was old and blind, but hadn't lost her nose. Earlier that summer, the boy had broken in, left the door standing wide, and Tommy was gone nearly a week before Ray found her two coves over, panting and hobbling half-starved down the road, having chased God knows what through the night. A dog gets on a scent and there's no turning back, and in that way dogs and men aren't that different. Ray didn't blame Tommy like he didn't blame the boy. Both were after something they had no business chasing, but he understood how a single thought could enter a man's mind and absolutely consume him.

"You ready for supper?" Ray said as he slid the barrel bolt back on the door. The bones of the five-stall kennel had weathered gray but were still as solid as the day he framed them. Rain slid off the back of the tin roof and seeped into the ground as quickly as it fell. The hound howled melancholic and lonesome as if she hadn't seen a soul in years. When the door swung open, she trotted through the yard and into the house, then shook herself dry with ears slapping jowls.

This was the first rain to touch the mountain in months. The ground was so dry that stopping there in the yard, Raymond could almost hear the earth lapping at what fell, trying to wet its mouth enough to stave off dying of thirst. The ridges were burning and the air smelled of smoke and there was no front in the forecast. Ray figured this little spell was just a cruel joke. Still, he stood there staring up into the sky, letting the drops beat against his eyelids while he prayed the shower long.

A stingy brimmed hat sat low on his brow. He wore a pair of Key overalls stained dark at the knees and a duck barn coat with a crude patch stitched over the right shoulder. Six foot five and pushing three hundred, he was a giant of a man with forearms thick as fence posts. He had hands like his father's that swallowed most anything they held. He remembered one time at a livestock auction as a kid how an old man joked that with mitts like that his father could shake hands with God. All his life Ray had figured that was about right.

The board-and-batten farmhouse looked almost silver in the rain, its cedar shake roof sullied green with moss. The front door tapped against the inside wall on a light breeze. The lights were on in the front room. The boy hadn't even needed his key because Ray hadn't locked the door. There were no other threats this far out in the country. He could've changed the locks and his habits, but then the boy might've busted out the windows or kicked down the door and that'd just be something else to fix. Maybe that was why Ray didn't bother, or maybe it was some hope buried in the pit of his heart that said, One day he won't come back to steal. One day he'll just come home.

Sometimes he blamed himself for the boy's faults. When his wife, Doris, got sick with cancer, Ray didn't bat an eye when the pain meds walked off. He was too busy watching his wife shrivel down to nothing. Sometimes he wondered if his absence was to blame, but the truth was before the pills it was crystal and before the crystal it was pills and before that it was booze and weed and anything else he could get his hands on. A few weeks back the law had found the boy leaned against the brick wall in front of Rose's with a needle in his arm, white-faced and openmouthed like he might've been stone cold dead, and none of that was anybody's fault but the boy's.

Ray still thought of him like that, as a boy, and in a lot of ways he was, a child trapped in a grown man's body. Ricky was forty-one years old closing in on a casket. There were times when Ray wondered if some folks were just born sorry, and that thought hurt the worst because that was no way to think about his own flesh and blood, no way to think of his son.

Tommy Two-Ton stood by her food bowl at the edge of the kitchen and Ray knelt and scratched behind the hound's ears. The dog leaned all of her weight into the palm of Ray's hand. A milky haze clouded Tommy's eyes and she sniffed the air when Ray crossed the kitchen for an open sack of feed in the pantry.

The silverware drawer was pulled open on the cabinets. The drawer was emptied to its peeling flower-pattern liner. Ray closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, a mismatched set of stainless dinnerware stolen from the drawer.

"Had a lot more forks than spoons, a lot more spoons than flat knives. Ain't that right," Ray grumbled to the dog as he held the fifty-pound bag over the bowl and poured kibble from the torn corner. Tommy took a bite and peered up with those milky eyes while she chewed, not having the foggiest what the old man was saying, but satisfied just the same.

In the bedroom, Ray unfastened his galluses and dropped his overalls by the foot of the bed. He wore overalls every day of his life and a dress pair on Sundays, same as his father and grandfather, both now buried in theirs. A chestnut jewelry box he'd bought his wife at Mountain Heritage Day centered the dresser right where she'd left it. He glanced at himself in the vanity. A thick salt-and-pepper beard starting just under his eyes hung to the center of his chest. Heavy facial hair covered his lips, his words always seeming to come out of nowhere, his mood always concealed. He lifted his hat by the pinch-front crown, ran his fingers through what was left of his hair, and let out a heavy breath. A small brass clasp that held the jewelry box closed was unlatched. Standing there, he traced the edge of the lid with the tip of his finger for a long time before he found the courage to flip the box open.

The small silver locket and wedding band that had belonged to Doris's mother rested on one side of the black velvet bottom. The silver wedding band was warped into a crooked oval, almost completely worn in two where it rode between her mother's fingers while she worked the cabbage fields. The gold band and quarter-carat engagement ring he'd bought from Hollifield's to ask for Doris's hand were strung together with a thin green thread, her having never been much for wearing jewelry. The only other content was a tarnished wheat penny a little girl had given her once out of the blue at the meat counter in Harold's Supermarket, one of those random things that find their way into your hand and you wind up saving the rest of your life for no particular reason at all.

Ray closed the box and snapped the clasp shut. He braced his knuckles on top of the dresser and leaned in close to the mirror. The whites of his eyes were bloodshot and yellowed, their pale blue color almost gray. He was thankful some things were still sacred. If not forever, at least right then.

Closing his eyes, he inhaled until his chest could hold no more, and tried to imagine where the boy might be. The sound of the rain died on the roof and that silence washed his mind empty. Barely enough had fallen to rinse the dust off the world. He could not recall the last time a prayer was answered.


A spot fire on Moses Creek rim-lit the mountains, but the wind was wrong to pose any real danger of it jumping the ridge to Wayehutta, a place locals pronounced worry hut. Raymond sat on his porch the way he did every evening, listening to the police scanner while he smoked a Backwoods and rattled Redbreast over ice in the bottom of a jelly jar.

A man needed something constant, something unchanging, that he could lean against when the world went to pot. Sooner or later, the cards always fell that way and the difference between those who buried their heads in their hands and those who kept their chins above water became a matter of reprieve. With the good and the bad, Ray started his days with a pot of coffee and a book, and ended them with four fingers of good whiskey and a gas station cigar.

From the sound of the radio chatter, the woods had caught down around the campsite where the forest turned to gamelands. Volunteer firemen had cut lines and the fire was contained, but lately that word "contained" was only relative. The whole region was dry as grain. As soon as one fire burned out, windswept embers lit the next, scorching swaths of land left black in the wake. Honestly, it was amazing it hadn't happened sooner. Thirty years as a forester told Ray that. Decades of mismanagement had left the forests thick with fuel. Anybody with a lick of sense should've seen it coming.

Ray drew a few quick puffs from his cigar, then picked a piece of tobacco from the tip of his tongue and wiped it on the heel of his boot. There was a book he'd bought that summer at City Lights Bookstore sitting on his lap, the story of how coyotes spread across the American landscape. Ever since Doris passed he'd become obsessed with coyotes. In the beginning, Ray couldn't figure out the reason. Maybe it was all the sleepless nights and hearing them in the woods above the house. But the more time he spent thinking, the more he came to figure that maybe it was how he'd watched mountain people and culture be damn near extirpated over the course of a few decades, while those dogs had been persecuted for a century and thrived. It was admiration, he thought. Maybe even jealousy.

The first coyote Raymond ever saw in Jackson County was back in the late 1980s on a piece of forestland in Whiteside Cove. There were more of them now. It was nothing to see them lining the sides of the highways hit by semis at dawn and dusk. Sometimes late at night while he lay in bed, a patrol car or ambulance siren would scream past and that sound would trigger the dogs to sing, one voice sparking another and another until a chorus filled the darkness around him. The research said the coyotes were taking a census. But for Ray the reason was less important than the feeling. All Ray knew was that when he heard that sound he felt as close a thing to joy as he knew anymore. Just imagining it right then he rocked back in his chair and smiled.

He was almost finished with his glass when the phone rang inside the house. A cane-back rocker was nestled in the corner of the front room where his wife used to sit and talk with her sister and her friends and telemarketers and anyone else who'd listen because truth was that woman just loved to talk. Her and Ray had balanced each other out that way, him never saying boo to a goose and her having enough stowed away for the both of them.

"Talk to me," Ray grumbled into the receiver. His voice was deep and gruff, words never seeming to make it out of the back of his throat. The stub of his cigar was hooked in the corner of his mouth and he scissored the butt between two fingers so as to clear his lips to speak. He could hear heavy breathing on the other end of the line, but no one said a word. "Hello."

"Dad," a voice whimpered, "Dad . . ." He was out of breath. "They're going to kill me."

Raymond ran his hand down his face and stretched his eyes, trying to will his wits about him. He started to hang up, but hesitated. His hand clenched the phone so hard that he could hear the plastic cracking in his fist.

The boy's voice was the same as when he'd been ten years old and called from Gary Green's, having burned down the man's barn with a G.I. Joe, a magnifying glass, and a Dixie cup of kerosene. It was the same as the first time Ricky got arrested, and the second and the third, the same scared-to-death, I'm-in-over-my-head horseshit Ray'd heard so many times over the course of his life that he couldn't bear to listen. He was almost immune. Yet, right then, same as always, he found himself incapable of hanging up.

Ricky's breath stuttered out like he was on the verge of tears and he said the same thing again, "They're going to kill me."

"What in the world are you talking about, Ricky? Nobody's trying to kill you."

"You need to listen to your son, Mr. Mathis." Another voice came onto the line.

Ray could hear Ricky pleading in the background.

"Who's this? Who am I talking to?"

"That's not important," the man said, "but you'll want to hear me out. I've got something I need to tell you."

"What are you talking about?"

"Your son's a junkie, Mr. Mathis."

"I don't know who you are or why you're calling here, but you're not telling me anything I don't already know. I know what my son is. I've been answering calls like this going on twenty year."

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