Although it was just past ten o'clock, the morning had already proven a long one, perhaps the longest of Amos McBride's nineteen years. He sat atop the railing of the fence, his shotgun resting across his nervously bouncing knees as he looked down at the carcass of his father's sow. This was no butcher job like he had ever seen before and he had seen plenty. His older brother Walter paced slowly around the fence line, examining the ground.
"What do you think, Walter? Could it have been an animal? A cougar? Maybe a bear?"
“It’s a man, I reckon.” Walter answered as he squatted down to examine the ground around the dead sow. “If it was a bear or a cougar, it sure covered its tracks.”
Footprints covered the muddy ground like red ants on a dropped biscuit. Walter made a production of his tracking efforts, however, kneeling and peering at the prints as if they were hieroglyphs that spoke only to him. The truth, of course, as Amos knew well enough, was that even at the age of twenty-five, Walter still liked to play at wild Indian. He stood slowly, still staring at the ground. "You and me seen about all there is to see around here as far as animals are concerned and there's nothing here able to kill a three-hundred pound hog but a human being. Besides, you can't argue with the fact that whatever killed that there pig was wearing boots."
"You know, Walter, I can see that from clean over here."
"Well, then, there you have it. All we have to do is find him."
Walter turned and walked away leaving Amos to his own pursuits. Of course, they would track the boy down. He had some answering to do. But there were other more pressing concerns. For instance, there was the whole thing about the strangers with the teeth. At first Amos thought his father was pulling his leg but the truth is that there was no joke, no funny twist to the story. He did not care much for the idea that his father had gone crazy but he could accept it. Such things do happen, after all. But it was an entirely different matter for several people to all go insane at the same time. And lying at his feet was a huge pig, dead as any bacon he had ever seen, with dozens of small boot prints in the mud around it. Amos really did not know what to think. But the very last thing he wanted to consider was that something might have happened to Chloe Way. And he did not want to consider this because he could not remember a time when he had not been in love with her.
Chloe was the baby, the youngest of Percy and Agnes Way’s seven daughters and two years younger than Amos. The Way girls were something. Kinder members of the community described them as "wild". Other, more judgmental, individuals favored harsher terms. And, of the whole beautiful bunch, it was Chloe who, as her mother put it, was pick of the litter. Amos didn’t consider himself worldly by any stretch and he reckoned anyone who did was stretching the description to a snapping point. But he wasn’t at all surprised that Chloe’s beauty gave her a certain power over men. He was even less surprised that the relentlessly independent young woman had no qualms about using that power anytime it was to her advantage.
In any case, by the ripe old age of seventeen, Chloe Way already had years of experience as a scandalous woman. At least she had the experience of dealing with a scandalous reputation.
Amos had heard many rumors about her but as far as he was concerned rumors were all they were. A running joke in the valley named Percy's shotgun as best man at the five older girls' weddings. And his own grandmother, Maybelline Williams, had tagged Chloe with the less-than-flattering nickname of "Family" Way, claiming it was only going to be a matter of time until Chloe got herself into that kind of trouble. But Amos did not hold with Maybelline's theory and, even if he did, it would not matter. All Chloe had to do was smile at him and he would forgive her anything. Amos always hoped, if Chloe were indeed to find herself in "that" kind of trouble, that he would be the one responsible-or even the one blamed.
But Chloe was different from other girls he had known, no doubt about it. She had an independent streak about her that set her apart and perhaps was the catalyst that caused the more active tongues to wag. Chloe had a mind of her own and she was as hard-headed and bold as any man Amos had ever met and almost on a par with her sister Sara. As it happened every time Amos though of her, he remembered the incident two years past when he and Walter happened upon Chloe and some of her sisters swimming in the lazy flow of Seven-Mile Creek. From his hiding spot in the thick foliage, Amos watched the girls swim and splash about. The white flash of skin, bright and brilliant among the shadows of trees over water, made him dizzy with feelings he had never known and couldn’t explain.
The girls lolled in the shallow water where a patch of sunlight found its way through the gnarled branches of the tall oaks. They lay on their backs with their legs spread slightly and at each little movement one of them made, the motion of the water caused their breasts to move as if independent of the rest of their bodies.
Amos paid careful attention to every single detail of the scene and even more attention to the construction of the memory but mostly he paid attention to Chloe. Her long, wet, almost but not quite auburn hair hung straight down to dangle into the creek when she tilted her head and the same movement caused her white breasts to thrust forward, rising from the water. Her green eyes were concealed by a lazy droop of eyelids made heavy by the warm summer sun. Grains of sand dotted her cheek and droplets clung to the fine, microscopic down of her glistening skin. Scissoring her long legs slowly back and forth in the shallow water, she exposed the dark triangular patch at the juncture of her thighs.
Amos was buffeted by a wave of feelings, not the least of which was a profound loneliness which took him completely by surprise and filled him with the strangest ache he could ever have imagined. At the same time he felt his erection becoming uncomfortably tight inside his overalls.
Walter decided to have some fun and stepped out into the open in plain view of the girls. "Morning, ladies," he greeted them loudly.
The girls' reaction had been instantaneous as they squealed and splashed out into deeper water, sinking up to their chins for concealment and crossing their arms tightly over their breasts; all of them but Chloe.
She stood in the knee-deep water, looking calmly at Walter, her steady gaze causing him to blush and drop his eyes. Then she turned to Amos, still kneeling in the underbrush.
"Good morning, gentlemen," she replied softly, perhaps even cordially, as if they had met one another on the way to a church social. But there was more than that. Even as she stood in the shallow water, as naked as the adoration on Amos's face, she was in charge and she knew it. She lowered her head for a moment and Amos thought she would simply turn and walk away but she did not. Instead Chloe turned those brilliant green eyes on him and smiled. He could have died on the spot.
Amos couldn’t take his eyes off her as she waded calmly out onto the opposite bank and strolled over to a pile of clothing, as casually unconcerned as if she had been alone in her own room. She faced him as she stretched her arms above her head and slid into her light cotton dress. The fabric clung to her wet skin and once again Amos became aware of the lump in his throat.
Chloe cocked her head to one side and smiled brightly.
"Bye, Amos," she said. "I hope this gives you gentlemen something to think about from time to time."
And then she was gone.
Boy, Amos thought, had it ever given him something to think about.
Even now, sitting on the railing and looking at the dead sow, the thoughts of that afternoon elicited a hot rush of blood in his veins. God, he hoped nothing had happened to Chloe.
The men crossing the yard caught Amos's attention. Percy and Bill approached the hog pen each wearing a similar grim expression. Truitt stood on the porch, shotgun slung over his shoulder while he stuck the second of two revolvers in his belt before hurrying down the steps to catch up with the others. Finally Walter and Ernie followed, chatting and joking as they approached.
"Old Truitt was moving was he?" Ernie asked, grinning broadly.
"Moving?" Walter said. "Friend, you don't know nothin’. There ain’t a thing in God’s mountains that could've caught up with that man. You'd need a racehorse to talk to him, much less catch him."
The two laughed together but Amos failed to see the humor. Truitt obviously did not either. A stern look from his father silenced Walter and Ernie followed suit. Neither spoke again as they joined the rest of the group at the pig sty. Truitt leaned against a fence post, looking silently into the pen. He stepped back and kicked the bottom rail, shaking the whole enclosure and almost spilling Amos into the rancid muck.
"Dang," Truitt said, angrily. "That was my best sow."
Without another word, he turned and walked away, marching in the direction of Hog Heaven Hill. Amos, along with the others, followed without further discussion. Hog Heaven Hill, the tallest of the mountains ringing the valley, was still dwarfed by the looming giants of the range stretching westward in the distance. Steep and heavily wooded, it was a rough climb. Amos did not ask where they were going. Though no one had told him, he already knew. They were in for a long walk and an equally long climb up the forested slope to the small clearing where Aunt Tildy Garrett's cabin stood.
There may have been a river or two in the country that was older than Matilda Garrett, but Amos didn’t know the names of them. He also knew of no one as old as his father's great aunt. For that matter, he knew of no one who actually knew Tildy's age. If he had to bet, he would wager she was a hundred if she was a day. She was not sure herself to hear her tell it. But she had been in her fifties when the sound of Union cannons drifted up from the lowlands and the valleys and meadows had been strewn with the dead.
Amos remembered his grandfather saying what a fine figure of a woman Tildy had been in her prime and how he had once been caught spying on her while she bathed. Grandpa McBride cackled over the beating he had received for his effort and maintained it had well been worth it. Amos shuddered. It would take a hell of a beating to force him to watch the old girl bathe.
Tildy was rumored to be "strange." And he had heard people say this, though never to her face, ever since he could remember. Amos had been nine years old when Walter explained to him what people meant by strange.
"You know," Walter said. "Just strange. She ain't got no use for men. Never has."
"So what's strange about that? I ain't got no use for women. Does that make me strange?"
"Naw, that just makes you a kid--a ignorant one at that. But Aunt Tildy's got a yen for women. She treats them like a man would treat them. Do you understand?"
Amos shook his head.
"Damn, Amos. You can be dumber than a whole sack full of rocks sometimes. Aunt Tildy's queer, boy. She likes to take other women to bed."
That news shocked young Amos to his shoes. Living on a farm, he had a more than passing acquaintance with the mechanics of sex as it was practiced by barnyard animals. So, with a child's logic, he moved to the next frightening assumption. Aunt Tildy had a penis. For a while, he avoided the old lady with the same self-conscious horror with which he avoided a dose of Castor Oil. Of course, he now understood. At least he understood what "strange" meant even while he doubted he would ever understand what "strange" was like. But he knew what it meant when people thought you were different. It meant talk behind your back, bad names and bad stories told to everyone but you. It meant bearing a cross that was not of your own making. And Aunt Tildy bore it well, without complaint, without explanation, without apology and without shame.
Amos walked quietly with his shotgun over his shoulder as they entered the woods to climb the slope of Hog Heaven Hill. The terrain was steep, an exhausting trace under the best of conditions, even more tiring with the sun almost directly overhead. The path twisted past swaths of loose rock, around sharp bluffs and impenetrable tangles of undergrowth that had to simply be circumvented.
But Amos paid little attention to the terrain or to his own weariness. His mind was still on Chloe and he hoped Aunt Tildy would be able to help. Strange or not, Aunt Tildy knew more about all sorts of things than anyone else in the county. Many believed she had the "sight." If anyone could explain these recent odd occurrences, it would be her. And he would not have to struggle to frame a question or make a point with Tildy as he often had to do with other members of his family. Aunt Tildy knew what he was thinking most of the time—at least when he was around her. And while he was never actually comfortable with that reality, he had to accept it because that was the way it was and what else can a man do with a natural fact? He had no doubt she simply knew other things as well. Amos comforted himself with the thought that she would likely know exactly what had happened to Chloe and, even more importantly, where to find her. He would not consider any possibility beyond her safe return to her father. That was the first thing, the important thing. Make sure Chloe was all right and get her home. After that, he had a bone to pick with his "friend" Burl Tanner.