Love and tragedy are not strange bedfellows among the Tufa. Young Kera Rogers disappears while hiking in the woods by Needsville. When her half-eaten remains are discovered, the blame falls upon a herd of wild hogs, a serious threat in this rural community. In response, the county’s best trackers, including game warden Jack Cates and ex-military Tufa Bronwyn Chess are assembled to hunt them down.
Kara’s boyfriend Duncan Gowen mourns her death, until he finds evidence she cheated on him with his best friend, Adam Procure. Seeking revenge, Duncan entices Adam to participate in their own boar hunt. Later, Bronwyn and Jack stumble across a devastated Duncan, who claims a giant boar impaled Adam and dragged him off. As this second death rocks the town, people begin to wonder who is really responsible.
Determined hunters pursue the ravenous horde through the Appalachians as other Tufa seek their own answers. Between literal beasts in the woods and figurative wolves in sheep’s clothing, what truths will arise come spring?
The fifth book in Alex Bledsoe’s critically-acclaimed Tufa series, Gather Her Round is available March 7th from Tor Books.
Kera Rogers sniffed the morning air. There was something new in it, something she hadn’t encountered before. It was a pungent, organic smell, like manure but with a musky tang. She’d walked this trail her whole life, and knew it like the proverbial back of her hand, but never before had she smelled something like this. She looked around, but saw nothing.
Her dog, Quigley, a mass of entwined canine genes so thick, hardly any aspect of a specific breed could be identified, stopped suddenly. Kera didn’t notice, and kept walking.
Kera was twenty-one years old, wide-shouldered and broad-hipped, with an earthy femininity that meant she’d never lacked for male attention since she hit puberty. She had the jet-black hair, dusky skin, and perfect teeth of Cloud County’s mysterious Tufa people, but her Tufa blood wasn’t terribly strong, and she never thought of herself as that different from the people in Unicorn or other nearby towns. She was sweet but aimless, content to still live at home, work part-time at Doyle Collins’s garage, and indulge her one true Tufa vice: music.
She was in one of the low gullies at the far east end of Cloud County, ten miles from Needsville and an hour’s slow walk from her family’s farm. She had her pennywhistle in the back pocket of her cutoffs and sought a comfortable and acoustically suitable spot to play. She knew there was a particular outcropping of rock ahead that crudely mimicked the shape of a recliner, nestled in a grove that gave her playing the extra spark that she imagined the great god Pan had enjoyed in the forests of Greece.
At last she noticed that Quigley remained stock-still in the middle of the trail behind her. “What is it?” she asked impatiently.
The dog stared straight ahead, his ears flattened. He was a notorious coward, having once been treed by a squirrel while the whole family watched. But even for him, this was unusual.
“Oh, go on home, you big baby,” Kera said. “Git!”
Quigley didn’t need a second command. He turned and trotted back toward the house.
Kera shook her head. Quigley was old, and it wasn’t fair to expect him to change his ways now. She’d had him since he was a pup, and whatever his failings as a guard dog, he was still her baby. She continued on to Recliner Rock, enjoying the silence without pondering its source.
She recalled the shallow stream that ran beside Recliner Rock, trickling down from a spring somewhere in Half Pea Hollow and cutting through Dunwoody Mountain on its way to, eventually, join the Tennessee River. It had no official name, but was generally referred to as Half Pea Creek, after its origin. Sometimes she stripped naked and sat in the water, imagining herself one of those rural Greek girls, about to be ravaged by their goat-footed god drawn to her piping. Although, as a Tufa, she and Pan were more like equals than anyone might suspect.
There were two groups of Tufa in Cloud County. Kera’s family had, as long as anyone could remember, been under the guidance of Rockhouse Hicks, a bastard by any definition of the word. But his death the previous year had resulted in Junior Damo, a man with no experience in any sort of leadership, taking over.
Kera hadn’t had many dealings with Rockhouse before his demise. Mostly she saw him at the old moonshiner’s cave, where her family and the rest of his people met to play, drink, and hang out, or at the Pair-A-Dice roadhouse, where they mingled with the other group. The old man had, of course, commented on her physical attributes, saying she was “building herself a career” when she hit twelve and her ass went from flat to shapely, and snickering that she “must’ve left the air-conditioning on” if her nipples were visible through her bra and blouse. But he did that to every woman and girl, so she neither thought much about it nor took it personally.
And as for Junior, she barely knew what he looked like. Her parents bitched about him, but he didn’t impinge on her life any more than Rockhouse had.
Neither of them were on her mind that morning as she hiked the familiar trail and pondered the unfamiliar smell. She couldn’t wait to settle in and hear the notes of “The Old McMaynus Goose” twining through the trees from her pennywhistle.
But another song ran through her head right now, and she sang it softly, to herself, smiling at the irony.
Somebody’s tall and handsome,
Somebody’s brave and true,
Somebody’s hair is dark as night,
And somebody’s eyes are blue.…
The irony was that the song could apply to either of two young men in her life. Or for that matter, to almost any Tufa boy.
On impulse, she texted Duncan Gowen. Duncan was twenty-one, a Cloud County Tufa even though his family’s blood, like hers, wasn’t terrible true. But this was no Romeo-and-Juliet romance, or even a Hatfield-and-McCoy one; the Gowens, just like the Rogerses, were part of Junior Damo’s group of Tufa families.
In some ways, Duncan was more Tufa than her, because he took his Dobro-playing very seriously, and had even—or so he said—once been able, however briefly, to manifest Tufa wings and ride the night winds.
Kera wasn’t sure she believed him, but she also didn’t discount it. The Tufa as a whole—a few dozen families clustered around Needsville, Tennessee, at the center of tiny Cloud County—had a history that most people considered myth at best, mere tall tales at worst. That didn’t mean it wasn’t true that they were descended from an exiled band of Gaelic faery folk, just that they could keep that secret, like so many others, right out in plain sight. After all, who in the twenty-first century believed in faeries?
Duncan was also as close to a boyfriend as she had these days. A Tufa woman, at least one who chose to take her amorous partners from within the community, was not bound by the outside world’s morality. She was free to fuck anyone who wanted to fuck her, as often as both of them agreed to do it, without judgment from the other Tufa. And she’d sampled what Cloud County offered. But only Duncan seemed to know her rhythms without being taught, and could match her with every moan, gasp, and cry. They always managed to climax simultaneously, and that was a gift she appreciated. She wasn’t in love with him, certainly; but she wasn’t done with him, either.
Not that there was anything actively wrong with Duncan. It was just that outside the bedroom, he lacked the spark she sought in a partner. He was good-looking enough, talented enough when he sang and played his Dobro, and certainly skilled enough when they were intimate. Yet she couldn’t shake the sense that something more waited for her. And that made her touch the old buffalo nickel hanging on a chain around her sweaty neck, an heirloom from her grandfather. She smiled at a thought that had nothing to do with Duncan, but with the other boy.
Her phone buzzed with Duncan’s reply. morning. where are you?
She replied, going out to recliner rock to play my tin whistle.
He shot back, i know a tin whistle you can play.
She rolled her eyes and giggled. are you in seventh grade?
i promise, i’m a full-grown man. you should know that by now. want to go to the pair-a-dice tonight?
well, i’m prolly going 2b late getting back.
i can wait.
your right hand keeping you company?
if that’s what you like. you watch me, i’ll watch you.
She laughed out loud. This was what kept her around him: his outlandishness, which popped up when she least expected it and sent irresistible little intimate tingles through her. She knew she’d have to tell him the truth soon, and that he’d take it badly. But ultimately that was his problem, not hers.
She glanced down past her phone at the ground and saw something even more outlandish, something that made her stop dead. In the dirt beside her tennis shoe was a huge three-toed animal track, like some dinosaur had passed this way. It was easily six inches across.
She instantly recognized it: the track of an emu, one of the huge Australian birds released by her uncle Sim when his attempt to farm them failed. After getting one last warning from the bank about his delinquent loans, he’d simply walked to the pen, opened the gate, and shooed the immense birds into the woods. He expected them to die during the first winter, but they survived, or at least enough of them did. Now they were breeding, and making these foreign hills their new home. They mostly avoided people and minded their own business, a stance the Tufa could respect.
She recalled her last visit with Uncle Sim. Since his stroke, he’d become convinced that the emus he occasionally saw in the woods were the ghosts of the ones he’d released. No one could persuade him otherwise. He worried that they were plotting revenge, like the haints of murdered wives or husbands.
Ahead she saw the rock, already in comfortable shade. Beside it, the little creek emerged from the ravine before disappearing downhill into the woods. She texted Duncan, i’m just now getting started. why don’t i—
The odor she’d caught earlier suddenly washed over her like a noxious wave. She scowled, turned, and screamed.
The enormous wild hog, nine feet from snout to tail, snorted in surprise as he caught her scent. He stepped out of the woods onto the trail, between her and the way home.
She knew wild hogs were dangerous, and this one seemed to be the size of a Volkswagen. Yellowing tusks curled out from the lower jaw, sliding against the upper whetters that honed their razor-sharp edges. It had high shoulders with ragged skin that had grown thick enough to stop most bullets before they reached anything vital, and bristly hair tapered along its backbone. Its eyes were small, black, and malevolent, set above a wet, flat nose that seemed as large as her own head.
She looked wildly around for any place that might get her out of its reach, but there was nothing. None of the trees had branches low enough for her to grab.
Panicked, she dropped her phone and ran for the chair-shaped boulder. If she could get atop it, she’d have a chance: the hog, even as large as it was, had hooves and couldn’t climb. She slammed into the rock so hard, the pennywhistle fell from her pocket. She didn’t notice.
She raised one leg and tried desperately to find a foothold. The edge of her tennis shoe caught on a tiny outcropping, and she prepared to haul herself up.
The hog’s tusks slashed upward at her other leg just above her knee, cutting through flesh, tendons, muscle, and her femoral artery. Then its mouth closed on her ankle.
The pain was nothing compared to the irresistible strength that yanked her from the rock and tossed her to the side so hard, it separated the rounded top of her femur from its hip socket. The mouth crushed her lower leg bones, and as she lay on her back in shock, blood surging from the torn artery, she caught sight of a dozen smaller hogs emerging from the woods like a gang of junior high bullies supporting their leader.
The last thing she felt was the hog’s hot breath, tinted with the coppery smell of her own blood, as it came for her head.
Duncan Gowen stared at his phone. It was unlike Kera to drop off in the middle of a text.
He looked at her last words: why don’t i
At last he texted, why don’t you what?
As he waited for a reply, he went to the refrigerator and got out the iced tea. He was at his parents’ house while they were at work; this was his day off from both Old Mr. Parrish’s farm and his weekend job as a barista at the convenience store in Unicorn, so he was particularly irked when Kera said she wasn’t available. Here he was all alone, the whole house to himself, especially the carpeted stairs that Kera loved to be bent over, as they’d discovered during a tryst back in high school. He’d even done fifty sit-ups and push-ups so his abs, which Kera liked to kiss her way down, would be good and tight.
After he poured his glass, he looked at his phone. Still no reply, and no dots indicating she was typing.
He took a drink and texted, are u there?
Dots appeared. Then came the reply: dfsgsjdghkk
He texted, wtf?
He had no way of knowing that a hog had stepped on the discarded phone as it carried away a hunk of Kera’s flesh.
Later that day, Duncan stopped at the Fast Grab convenience store in Needsville. It was nothing like the relatively upscale Traveler’s Friend he worked at in Unicorn: there the crew wore uniforms with their names on their visors, and corporate sent a representative around every six months to put them through a customer-relations refresher. Here, though, the Fast Grab clerks got loud polyester shirts that were probably trendy around the same time as disco, and nobody got a name badge until they’d passed their first month.
Lassa Gwinn had her name badge. She’d been working here for six years now, through two pregnancies and a divorce. She knew everyone in the county, and remembered anyone traveling through who stopped more than once. She was three-quarters Tufa, part of Duncan’s group, and his third cousin.
Now she looked up at him and said, “What’s the matter with you?”
He put the bag of chips and bottle of Mountain Dew on the counter and said, “Who said anything was wrong?”
“Well, for starters, you’re not drinking beer.”
“It’s not even eleven o’clock in the morning yet.”
“And you got that scowl on your face.”
“That frowny look you get when you’re worrying about a problem. You’ve gotten that since you were knee-high to a grown man’s ball sac. Did you lose your job over in Unicorn?”
“’Cause if you did, there’s a part-time shift open here. Midnight to six a.m., three nights a week. And I hear that Cyrus Crow and his NY boyfriend are reopening the café down at the Catamount Corner.”
“I haven’t lost my job.”
“Then what’s the frown for?”
“You ain’t seen Kera come through here, have you?”
“Have I got another girlfriend named Kera?”
“She’s your girlfriend? I knew you two went out some, but I didn’t think you’d made it exclusive. When did that happen?”
He leaned across the counter and said through his teeth, “Have… you… seen her?”
“Don’t get your drawers twisted around your nuts, Duncan. No, I ain’t seen her today. Why?”
“We were texting each other this morning and she just dropped off in the middle of it.”
“Where was she?”
“She said she was out looking for a place to practice her pennywhistle. But I know that spot, and she ought to get a signal the whole way.”
“Have you been out there to look for her?”
“No,” he said like a pouty child.
“Well, if you’re so worried, why not?” When he didn’t answer, Lassa said, “Oh, ’cause maybe you don’t want to know she ain’t there.”
“Can you please ring these up before my Co’-Cola gets warm?”
Lassa rang up the purchase and took his money. “If I see her, I’ll tell her you’re looking for her.”
“Thanks,” he said, and went outside to his car, an old Altima with a cracked windshield. He cruised around, eating the chips, drinking the Mountain Dew, and trying not to dwell on his suspicions.
Kera was out of his league, and he knew that, but he loved her anyway and tried not to let his paranoia get the best of him. Yet if she’d been texting from somewhere else and only pretending to be in the woods, that would explain the sudden loss of signal, if not that strange last text.
Of course, if she’d butt-texted, especially as she was squirming out of her jeans…
He glanced at his phone on the truck’s seat beside him. Still nothing.
When he looked up, he stood on the brakes, rose in his seat, and locked his arms to hold the steering wheel steady as the truck screeched to a halt. A half-dozen wild pigs crossed the highway ahead of him. The noise from his tires made them scurry in all directions, and he waited until two that ran back the way they’d come finally went across and joined the others. The whole herd dis appeared into the woods.
Duncan tried to calm both his startled heart and his seething temper. He hated himself when he felt this way, helpless to his own emotions and desires. He wanted Kera so badly right now, mainly because the thought of her being with someone else—no, the thought of her wanting to be with someone else—was more than he could handle.
And then he inevitably thought: Who could the other guy be? He began mentally listing all the boys she might be fucking at this moment.
Duncan sprawled naked on the couch at his apartment. It was a subdivided old house just off Main Street, and he had three neighbors: two single men who worked construction and were often gone, and a woman who was a secretary at the elementary school and had an eight-year-old son. For the most part, they all got along, since they all knew each other’s families, and they all ultimately answered to Junior Damo.
He was half-asleep in the drowsy summer heat when his cell phone finally rang. It was Kera’s landline number. “Where have you been?” he said, his voice thick.
“I got up, took a shit, blew my nose, and started my day,” said a male voice he instantly recognized. “Where the hell have you been?”
“Sorry, Mr. Rogers,” Duncan mumbled. “Thought you were somebody else.”
“I hope so,” said Sam Rogers, Kera’s father. “Is Kera with you?”
Duncan shook his head to clear it. Why was Kera’s dad calling him? He checked the clock on the cable box: 3:47 in the afternoon. “No, sir. I haven’t heard from her since this morning.”
“Neither have her mother and I. She went out to practice her pennywhistle and ain’t come back.”
He sat up. He was damp with sweat from the vinyl couch, and his skin peeled off it like the back of a sticker. “I don’t know where she is, either.”
“It’s not like her to miss lunch, especially when she’s working this afternoon out at Doyle’s garage. You planning to gather her round from there this eve ning?”
Duncan waved at a fly that, drawn to his sweat, tried to land on his face. “No, sir. Have you tried calling her?”
Sam Rogers sighed the way parents do at the stupidity of the young. “No, son, that hadn’t occurred to me. Glad you’re here to remind me of these things. What did I ever do before you came along?”
Sam had never really cared for Duncan, and Duncan knew it. Sam had been a trucker since he turned eighteen, and he felt the boy was too aimless for his daughter, whom he cherished. He’d even tried to fix Kera up with Whitey Crowder, who’d been born without his right arm, when she started dating Duncan. While Duncan had nothing against Whitey, it meant that Kera’s father preferred him to someone like Duncan, who had all his parts. That was humbling.
Still, Sam wasn’t one of those men who kept his daughter locked away from life. He let Kera make her own mistakes, and was always there to wipe her tears and help her sort things out. So Duncan secretly worried that Sam was, deep down, right about him.
“Sorry,” Duncan said, “I just… I was asleep.”
“In the middle of the afternoon?”
“It’s my day off,” he said defensively.
“Huh. Must be nice. Well, if you hear from her, tell her to call home. Her mama’s worried, and it ain’t doing my blood pressure no good, either.”
Sam ended the call, and Duncan stared at the phone. He almost screamed when it suddenly buzzed in his hand again.
“Hey,” his friend Adam Procure said. “Is Kera with you?”
“I just got a call from her dad, looking for her.”
“Why would he call you?”
“I think he’s calling everybody.”
“No, she’s not with me. Have you seen her?”
“Not in days.”
“I talked to her this morning, but we got cut off .”
“Do you think we should be worried?”
“I dunno, man. I was asleep.”
“In the middle of the afternoon?”
“It’s my day off!” he repeated, more vehemently.
“Whoa there, slick, calm down. I didn’t mean anything by it. When she turns up, let me know, okay?”
“Yeah,” he said, and Adam disconnected. Duncan made himself get up, went into the bathroom, and started the shower. He left the water fairly cold, so it would wake him quickly.
For the first time today, he wasn’t annoyed or pissed off. Now he was a little scared.
It was late afternoon by the time Duncan got ready to go look for Kera. Following his shower, he’d started drinking beer to calm his nerves after talking to Sam and Adam. Then he’d stopped, realizing things might be serious, and was now halfway between a sour-stomached buzz and a hangover. He was also in that middle ground between worry and anger. If something had happened to her, he was going to hate himself for waiting so long to go help; and if nothing had, he was going to be furious with her for yanking his, and everybody else’s, chain.
And if he was angry, he knew just how she’d apologize. And that had him intensely aroused. So he was a miasma of conflicting feelings as he drove toward the last place she’d supposedly been.
The Rogerses lived at the base of Dunwoody Mountain, along a winding gravel road. He stopped just before the turn to her house so hopefully Sam wouldn’t spot him; he could see the man’s trailer-less Peterbilt in the front yard, the truck’s chrome gleaming through a coating of road dust. He cut through the forest to reach the trail Kera would’ve taken to Recliner Rock.
He was no woodsman or hunter, but almost at once he spotted a fresh track from a tennis shoe that looked about the right size, and was pointed in the right direction. He looked around, but there were no similar tracks coming back. So either she’d continued on the trail past Recliner Rock, or…
He tried to recall where that trail finally came out. Was it behind Briar Hancock’s place, near the old gravel pit? Why would she go there, unless it was to meet someone else?
His already iffy stomach began to churn. He walked as quickly
as he could, wishing he felt well enough to run.
He stopped again when he found the ground torn up along a good ten feet of trail. Something had come out of the trees, crossed the trail, and headed uphill into the forest. Again, he wasn’t experienced enough to recognize the tracks. They looked like hooves; were they deer? He’d never seen deer agitate the ground like this. This looked like something had rooted around in the dirt in search of something. He flashed back to the wild pigs he’d nearly run over. Could it have been the same herd?
“Kera?” he called out. “Hey, Kera! You out here?”
He stayed very still, listening for any movement. A bird trilled and insects hummed, but there was no human answer. He picked his way over the torn path, wishing he’d changed out of his new tennis shoes. Ahead, the trail grew wider, which meant he was close to Recliner Rock.
“Kera!” he called again. “C’mon, answer me!”
He stopped when he saw the first splash of red at the trail’s edge.
It was a thick liquid, deep crimson and heavy, and its weight bent the grass where it oozed along the blades toward the tip. He touched it, his heart suddenly thundering in his ears with a mix of panic and horror. When he saw it on his fingertips, he knew immediately what it was.
“Kera?” he called out again as he rushed forward. His voice trembled and grew high-pitched. “Kera!”
He reached Recliner Rock and stopped dead. A waist-high smear of blood marked its surface. The unmistakable tracks of fingers ran through it, making parallel lines of red down to the ground, which was torn up even more, the mud and blood mixed as thoroughly as if they’d been through a blender.
Duncan couldn’t breathe.
“Kera?” he said, his voice barely getting out.
And then, like that scene in Jaws when the police chief sees the shark eat the little boy, Duncan’s vision shifted until all he could see was the pennywhistle lying discarded on the ground.
And then he knew Kera was gone.
Bliss Overbay, in her capacity as an EMT, draped a blanket around Duncan’s shoulders. He looked up from his seat on the Rogerses’ front steps and said numbly, “I’m not cold.”
“I don’t want you going into shock,” Bliss said. She looked to be in her thirties, with the long black Tufa hair braided and bundled on her head. She was far more than what she appeared to be, but at that moment, what was needed was simply a compassionate paramedic. “It can happen even in the summer.”
“Too late,” Duncan said. “I’m pretty fucking shocked.”
“I know what you mean,” she said, and briefly touched his cheek. She was from the other group of Tufa, guided by a totally different leader, but she had broad responsibilities to the Tufa as a whole. “Let me know if you need anything else, okay? I can call your parents for you.”
He closed his eyes, petty annoyance in his voice. “I’m a grown man, Bliss. You don’t have to call my folks. I live by myself, I work, I wipe my own ass.”
“And you need somebody here with you,” she insisted gently.
As if in response, old Quigley padded over and plopped down on his stomach at Duncan’s feet. “I’ve got somebody,” Duncan said. “See?”
“Yes, but I don’t trust his judgment in a crisis. Is there someone else you’d rather I call?”
He tried to think of someone, but no one came to mind. Certainly not his parents. He could call Adam, but he didn’t want his friend to see him so shattered. “No,” he said at last.
“There you go, then.” Her walkie-talkie beeped, and she took it from her belt. “Overbay.”
“Come on up here,” a male voice said. “We need you to take a look at something.”
“On my way,” she said, and clicked off .
Duncan looked up at her. “What did they find?”
“You heard as much as I did.”
He started to rise. “I’m coming with you.”
She pressed him back down. “No, you’re not. I promise, I’ll tell you as soon as I know.”
He swallowed hard. “If it’s her—”
“Then I’ll tell you. Do you really want to see it?”
He couldn’t meet her steady, no-nonsense gaze. “Okay,” he mumbled.
Bliss tousled his hair the way she had when he’d been a boy, only a few years ago, and walked around the house.
Like many of the homes in Cloud County, the Rogers house was built on a hillside, with a small backyard that sloped sharply up to the tree line on Dunwoody Mountain. There were a birdbath and a little herb garden in the more level side yard, both kept neat.
Standing apart from the house, arms around each other, were Kera’s parents. Sam and Brenda Rogers had their eyes closed; those unfamiliar with the Tufa might think they were praying, but as she got closer, Bliss heard their faint, light humming.
Bliss walked over to Chloe Hyatt, who stood a respectful distance away, ready to help if needed. The Rogerses’ other two adult children, Spook and Harley, were on their way, but it would be hours until they arrived. A few years earlier, Chloe had lost her adult son, so she understood what they were feeling. She also knew that at the moment, she could contribute nothing but her sympathetic presence.
“Did you get news?” Chloe asked softly.
“I think so. They called me up there.”
Sam and Brenda’s eyes snapped open. Bliss’s heart ached for them; they knew, but they still had hope. That was the saddest part of all.
“You heard something from Alvin?” Sam asked.
“Yes,” Bliss said as she climbed on the four-wheeler that she’d brought here in the back of her truck. She’d strapped a thorough first aid kit, borrowed from the fire station, on the back.
“Did he say—?” Brenda began.
“I don’t know anything yet.” Bliss started the ATV and headed up the trail before they could ask anything else. She hoped some of the other friends she’d called showed up soon to sit with Sam and Brenda. This would be the worst day in their lives.
It took her ten minutes to reach Recliner Rock. The whole way, she kept glancing into the woods, knowing that something horrible must lurk there, wondering if it was brave enough to attack her atop the roaring machine. She knew the animals that usually lived in the area, as well as the more unique creatures that hovered around the Tufa. Most were contained, either by particular words sung in a specific way, or by the Tufa’s ingrained wariness. But things could change, and one of them might have broken free. Then again, it could be something wholly mundane, like a bear or a cougar. Despite what outsiders thought, not every Tufa tragedy had to involve their magical side.
When she’d arrived at the Rogers farm two hours ago, Duncan had told her the basics of what he’d found, and the Rogerses said that they’d called State Trooper Alvin Darwin. Darwin was the only Tufa law enforcement officer, and his usual job—unofficially, of course—was to make sure no crime that occurred in Cloud County attracted any outside attention. Sometimes that was easier than others.
When she reached Recliner Rock, Darwin was there, lookingpaler than Bliss had ever seen him; Deacon Hyatt and Eldon“Gittem” Sands, both armed with their hunting rifles, gazed atsomething on the ground. Deacon was middle-aged, with classical gray at the temples of his neat, short hair. Gittem looked like what he was: a wild-haired hillbilly moonshiner, barefoot and clad in patched overalls.
“Do you know what happened to Kera?” Bliss asked as she shut off the ATV and dismounted.
“There ain’t much doubt now,” Darwin said, “but we need a professional to say so.”
He led her over to the others, who stepped aside. Gittem used the tip of his rifle’s barrel to indicate something on the ground.
It was part of a woman’s hand, the thumb and forefinger. It had been chewed off at the wrist, and the rest of the fingers were likewise missing. The flesh was pure bloodless white, which made the black nail polish appear that much more vivid.
“I don’t guess it fell off, did it?” Darwin asked.
“Reckon not,” Bliss said.
She looked around at the other two solemn men, who waited for her pronouncement. To Darwin, she said, “I can officially confirm those are human remains, all right.”
“Kera’s?” Deacon asked.
“Is anyone else missing?”
“Not that I’ve heard anything about,” Darwin said.
“Then I’d say yes. I saw her at the post office a couple of days ago, and she’d just painted her nails.” Bliss sighed, struggling to maintain her professional distance. “She was showing them off .”
“Where’s the rest of her, then?” Gittem asked.
No one answered, but Gittem swung his rifle barrel until the tip pointed at another spot on the ground. A huge cloven hoofprint sank deep into the ground.
Deacon looked around at the woods, the ravine with its bubbling little creek, and the mountains that overshadowed them. “Then we got a monster,” he said.
Duncan knew the truth when he heard Bliss’s ATV arrive in the backyard, and it was confirmed by Brenda’s long, ululating wail. He tossed off the blanket and ran around the house as the sound echoed off the trees, for a moment coming at him from all directions and enveloping him in her pain.
Chloe Hyatt and Bliss stood close to the couple, their eyes downcast. Sam held Brenda so tightly, he must’ve been worried that she’d collapse. She let out another long cry, one that carried all the suffering a mother could possibly feel.
Duncan grabbed Bliss’s arm harder than he meant to. “What did you find?”
Bliss looked at him sadly. “I’m sorry, Duncan. She’s gone.”
Chills took hold of his legs and crept up his whole body. Now he wished he had that blanket.
Darwin, Deacon Hyatt, and Gittem emerged from the trail. None of the Tufa thought anything about the fact that they’d made almost as good time as Bliss on the ATV. Darwin stopped to quietly say something to Sam, then announced, “I’ve got to go call this in.”
“To who?” Gittem asked.
“My dispatcher, for one thing.”
“Will other police come out?” Deacon asked.
“I don’t think so. It’s not a murder, it’s what we call ‘death by misadventure.’ I’m qualified to handle that.”
“You know who you need to talk to first,” Bliss said, soft but firm.
Darwin nodded. “I’ll do that right after I leave here. Reckon I’ll find ’em at the post office?”
“I’ll also have to call the wildlife officer for this area.”
“Jack Cates,” Bliss said. “I’ve worked with him a few times. He seems like a good guy.”
“Nosy?” Deacon asked.
“Only when his job requires it.”
“Was it a bear?” Duncan choked out.
Everyone fell silent and turned to him. Ordinarily he’d be embarrassed at the sudden attention, but not today.
“Did a bear kill her?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” Darwin said.
“Then what? What?” he demanded, his voice cracking.
Darwin paused before speaking, considering how to phrase his words with Kera’s parents right there. “I think it was a hog.”
“A… a hog?” Duncan repeated, almost shouting. “You mean someone’s fucking hog got loose and killed her?”
Brenda cried out and buried her face in Sam’s shoulder.
“Shush, son, that’s her mother right there,” Darwin said. He pulled Duncan aside and said, “Nothing but wild hog tracks around the site; no bear or mountain lion sign at all. That’s pretty clear. And we found… partial remains.”
That word echoed around inside Duncan’s head. Remains.
He swallowed hard. His mouth was dry, and his eyes burned. “M-maybe they just ate her a-after the bear…” Now he really wanted that blanket, and a place to sit down. And a bucket to puke in.
“Son, this is awful, I understand that,” Darwin said. “I wish the news was better. Bliss?”
Bliss left Kera’s parents and came over to Duncan. “This is what I warned you about,” she said as she put her arm around his trembling shoulders. With surprising strength, she walked him back around to the front porch, where she sat him down and again put the blanket around him.
He looked up at her, numb and cold. “W-was it really a hog?”
“It looks that way.”
“When I f-find out whose it was—”
“I think it was a wild hog, Duncan.”
“W-where did it… did it…”
“Calm down. I don’t know where it came from. That’s not important right now, is it? But I do know it won’t be here long.” She looked out at the woods that surrounded the house, past the vehicles crammed into the dirt driveway and yard. “No, wherever it is, it’s crossed a line.”
“It’s just an animal, right? I mean, it’s not… it’s not…” He hesitated, not wanting to mention the words for things that the Tufa whispered about, afraid that speaking the names aloud might somehow manifest the things themselves.
“No, it’s just an animal,” Bliss said with an assurance she didn’t feel.
Trooper Darwin parked his police cruiser in the post office parking lot. The building was considerably newer than the other structures that constituted downtown Needsville, since the federal government had both insisted it be built, and paid for it. But one very important holdout from the old building had been ported over: the four rocking chairs now lined up along the porch. And at the moment, two of those were occupied.
In one sat a man of about thirty, with Tufa-black hair and a permanent expression of annoyance, which deepened when he realized Darwin was approaching them: Junior Damo. In the other sat a thirteen-year-old girl, her attention apparently all on her smartphone. She didn’t even look up. She was Mandalay Harris.
Between the two of them, they governed the Tufa.
Darwin stood on the grass in front of the porch, waiting to be acknowledged. At last Mandalay turned off her phone and said, “Hey, Alvin. Sorry, was in the middle of a conversation. What can we do for you?”
“You mean you don’t know?”
She glanced at Junior. “We’re not genies, Alvin.”
“Kera Rogers was killed up on Dunwoody Mountain today.”
Neither spoke for a long moment. Then Mandalay said, “How did she die?”
“Appears to be a wild hog.”
“A wild hog big enough to kill a person?” Junior said.
“I said it appears to be,” Darwin said. “Fair plain enough that a bunch of wild hogs consumed her remains.”
“They ate her?” Junior said.
“Hog’ll eat anything. Hair, bones, clothes, the works.”
Junior sat back. Mandalay said, “Who else knows?”
“Nobody outside us yet. I have to tell the wildlife people. If that hog gets out into one of the neighboring counties and kills somebody else, it’ll draw a bunch of eyes to us.”
“Go ahead and call him,” Mandalay said.
“Wait, how can you be so sure?” Junior said. “Game wardens are always traipsing around where they got no business, just looking for excuses to give out tickets. Just like—” He caught himself, aware he was about to say, “like highway patrolmen.”
Mandalay turned to him. “Because I am.”
“You want state people poking around in the woods?” Junior persisted. “There’s no telling what else they might find.”
“They won’t find anything they’re not supposed to,” the girl insisted calmly. “Kera’s folks are yours, Junior; they’ll be needing you.”
“I know that,” he snapped.
“You should head out there.”
“Don’t tell me my job.”
Darwin thought how odd it was to see a teenage girl bossing a grown man around like this. But this was no ordinary teenage girl; she was the latest in a line of Tufa women that went back farther than most would believe, and in her head she carried the history of all those women, and thus all the Tufa. She and Junior each led half the community, but there was no doubt who had seniority. She was thirteen only on the outside.
“I’ll be getting back,” Darwin said. “If you need anything else from me, let me know.”
He touched the brim of his hat and strode back toward his car. When he glanced back, the girl sat alone on the porch, again looking at her phone. She sang, so softly, he barely heard, “There is a wild boar in this woods, he’ll eat your meat and suck your blood, drum-down-rum-dee…”
For Duncan, the rest of the afternoon and eve ning passed in a haze. At some point, he gave an official statement to Trooper Darwin, explaining what had happened and how he’d come to discover the crime scene. He showed him the texts from Kera and how they abruptly stopped. He also told about the herd of pigs he’d nearly hit on the highway. He knew that Darwin, being part Tufa himself, would run interference for them, ensuring that all the paperwork was in order so it wouldn’t draw the attention of other law enforcement officers. The Tufa zealously guarded their secrets, even when they didn’t need to.
Bliss followed Duncan home in her truck, and once he’d parked his car and reached the door of his apartment, she left. He didn’t want her to stay, but at the same time, he didn’t want to be alone.
His parents would find out, and they would show up, all concerned and trying to be supportive. Even his big brother, Poole, might come over. He dreaded that more than anything.
He didn’t turn on any lights, and it grew dark as the afternoon dissolved to evening. As he sat on his couch, staring at the blank rectangle of the TV screen, he tried to force the new reality to take hold in his brain. Kera was gone. Her laugh, the way she rolled her eyes, the way her breasts bounced when she went without a bra, the sighs she made when he kissed the small of
No, stop that, he told himself.
He got up, went to the front door, and made sure it was locked. He checked all the curtains and blinds to make sure no one could see in. Then he sat on the couch again, turned on the reading lamp, and reached into his pocket.
He pulled out Kera’s cell phone.
Dirt and bits of grass still covered it from where it had been half-trampled into the torn-up ground. He’d found and pocketed it without really thinking about it, as he waited for Darwin to show up at the bloody scene. Now he stared at it and wondered why he hadn’t told the patrolman about it.
He swiped it on, then typed in her security code. He’d learned it over time, by surreptitiously watching her do it. 5-3-7-2. It was the numerical code for her name.
The screen lit up with her apps. Behind it, the wallpaper was a photo, not of the two of them as it had once been, but of a generic sunset. Duncan wondered if she’d taken it herself; no, she’d never shown any interest in visual art. She must’ve found it online.
He opened the Messages app. The texts were the last ones she’d sent to him, her last words to another human being on this earth. He read them and before he even realized it, tears streamed down his cheeks, dripping onto the glowing screen. He sniffled and wiped the phone against his shirt.
Then he noticed a little (3) symbol at the top. She had three unread messages left, and they weren’t from him, since he had that conversation open.
He hesitated. This was a betrayal of a dead girl’s trust, her confidentiality, of her life in general. Whomever she was talking to, or ignoring, it was none of his business.
But it was also the last new thing he would ever learn about her.
He carefully touched the little arrow that would show him all her conversations.
Excerpted from Gather Her Round © Alex Bledsoe, 2017