Like most of the rest of Texas, Blacklin County is being overrun with feral hogs that destroy farmland and crops. A mother and son have opened an animal shelter in the county and they welcome the pests. Someone’s threatened them by leaving a slaughtered animal on their doorstep. Then, while searching the woods for a convenience store robber, Sheriff Dan Rhodes and Deputy Ruth Grady stumble across a dead man.
The investigation is complicated by angry hog hunters, a crusading talk-show host, a bounty hunter named Hoss, conflicts with the county commissioners, and the reappearance of Rapper and Nellie, an inept two-man motorcycle gang that’s caused Rhodes considerable trouble.
“Crider is the champ at combining good, old-fashioned mystery elements with the modern crime novel. And better yet, his hero, Sheriff Dan Rhodes, is a living breathing character that I wish was my next door neighbor.”— Joe R. Lansdale
Sheriff Dan Rhodes saw the feral hog break from the tree line and streak for the country road, but the driver in front of Rhodes either didn’t see the hog or didn’t think it posed a problem.
The afternoon sky was dark with clouds, and a light veil of mist gave everything a hazy look. The hog moved fast across the open ground, its trotters a dark blur.
If the hog saw the car, it didn’t care.
It tore across the open space and ran between two old gray cedar posts where a fence had once been strung. A couple of rusted strands of barbed wire hung from one post, but nothing else remained of the fence.
The hog ran down into the shallow bar ditch without a stumble, up the other side, and right in front of the car.
There was nothing the driver could do at that point. He shouldn’t have been driving so fast on a dirt road in the country, but he had a sheriff chasing him, and that had made him imprudent.
Rhodes saw the sudden flash of red brake lights and heard the crash and the loud squeal of the hog all at about the same instant. He was about a quarter mile behind the car, far enough to bring the county’s Dodge Charger to a safe stop without having to worry about hitting anything or anybody.
When a Ford Focus collides with a three-hundred-pound hog, there’s not much left of the car’s front end. It doesn’t do the hog much good, either, and neither vehicle nor hog is going far afterward.
That didn’t matter to the people in the Ford. The driver didn’t plan to stay put. Nor did his passenger. As soon as the air bags deflated, they jumped out of the car.
The driver was smaller than his friend and wore a blue shirt, but that was about all Rhodes could see through the mist. The men staggered for a couple of steps, shook their heads as if to clear them, and looked back at the county car. When they saw Rhodes get out, they took off running in the direction from which the hog had come.
Rhodes had already called for backup, so he left the Dodge Charger and started after them. As soon as he crossed the ditch, he stumbled and almost fell. Feral hogs had rooted up the ground, and the heavy clods of earth were wet from the mist. Rhodes felt like he was running across a field of slippery stones. The men ahead of him were either younger or more agile or both, and they didn’t seem to be having as much trouble keeping their balance as Rhodes was.
Rhodes stumbled again, and as he recovered himself he heard the baying of dogs and gunshots from the trees. Then there were more gunshots. It sounded as if a small war had started. The shots were followed by squeals of terror and the low rumble of a hog stampede.
Without hesitation, Rhodes turned around and ran back toward the Charger. He’d had a run-in with wild hogs before, and it hadn’t turned out well for him. He didn’t intend to have a similar experience, not if he could help it.
He heard more gunshots and more baying. It was earlier than hog hunters usually got started, but the dark clouds and the cool day must have brought them out early. They’d found some hogs, sure enough.
Then the hogs thundered from the trees at Rhodes’s back, and Rhodes switched to warp speed, or as near to it as he could come. It didn’t help. By the time he reached the fence posts, the hogs were nearly on him. Their snorts and fierce squeals made the hairs stand up on the back of his neck. He could almost feel their hot breath on his calves as he crossed the bar ditch.
When he started down the side of the ditch, he turned his ankle and almost fell. He waved his arms to keep his balance and hobbled as fast as he could up the other side of the ditch. He didn’t bother to open the door of the Charger. He threw himself across the hood just as the first of the hogs reached him.
Most of the hogs went around the car, but one of them couldn’t push enough of the others aside to avoid it. He ran head-on into the side of the front bumper and bounced off.
The impact caused Rhodes to slide across the hood. He grabbed at the windshield wipers and got hold of one of them, though it didn’t do any good. It bent backward and broke as Rhodes slid off the car and landed on his back on the dirt road.
Rhodes fought for breath and finally sucked in some air. He coughed, and that made his ribs hurt.
The car protected him from the straggler hogs, and they surged around both ends of it. The powerful stink of the boars lingered in the air as the hogs fled into the field across the road and on into the trees beyond.
Rhodes sat up and leaned against the door of the Charger. His ribs were okay, just a little sore. He took a couple of deep breaths and then stood up. His ankle was all right if he ignored a minor twinge. He looked across the top of the car. He couldn’t see the men he’d been chasing, and he couldn’t see the hog hunters who’d fired the shots, either.
If they’d seen the county car, they’d probably decided they didn’t want to talk to the sheriff right at that moment. There wasn’t any law against hunting feral hogs, but considering the damage caused by the herd they’d chased out into the open, the hunters would probably have departed the scene rather than face any possible consequences.
Rhodes wondered what had happened to the men who’d been in the Focus. They might have taken shelter behind a big tree trunk, and if so, they’d be all right. For all Rhodes knew, they were hiding in the woods, watching Rhodes at that very moment.
On the other hand, they might have been trampled by the hogs. If that was the case, Rhodes couldn’t leave them there. He decided he’d have to take a look, but he didn’t want to go into the trees alone. He got the radio mic and called Hack Jensen, the dispatcher at the jail.
“Where are you?” Hack wanted to know.
“County Road 165. By the old Leverett place.”
Rhodes didn’t know who owned the property now, and it didn’t matter. It had been in the Leverett family for several generations before all the Leveretts died or moved away. Maybe some distant relative still owned it or maybe it had been sold, but everyone in the county still called it the Leverett place.
“I thought you were on 157,” Hack said.
“The guy turned off. I followed him. I haven’t had time to update you on my position.”
“I’ll let Ruth know.” Ruth Grady was one of the deputies. “She was headed your way, but she’s got to come all the way from Mount Industry, and now she’ll have to change her route.”
“I’ll be waiting,” Rhodes said.
“We got the report back on the license plate of that Focus,” Hack said. “It was stolen down in Houston a couple of days ago. Don’t know why anybody’d steal a car that was ten years old. I’d go for a new one if it was me doin’ the stealin’.”
“So I guess you’re innocent.”
“Wasn’t me drivin’, was it?”
“He could run faster than you can,” Rhodes said. “Besides, you’re back in Clearview and the driver’s off in the woods somewhere.”
“Off in the woods? What happened?”
Hack’s curiosity was aroused, but Rhodes wasn’t going to satisfy it.
“He got out of the car,” Rhodes said.
“Because of the hog.”
“Hog? What hog?”
“Never mind,” Rhodes said, well aware that his non-answer would get Hack’s goat. “I’ll tell you later.”
“Tell me what? What’s goin’ on?”
“You’d better send Alton Boyd, too,” Rhodes said. Boyd was the county’s animal control officer.
“Send Alton? Why?”
“Never mind,” Rhodes said.
Hack started to sputter, and Rhodes grinned. It was déjà vu all over again.
“Just let Ruth know where I am,” Rhodes said, “and send a wrecker.”
“Wrecker? What do you need with a wrecker?”
“I blame the hog.”
“What hog, dadgummit?”
“I’ll tell you later,” Rhodes said.
Hack was still sputtering when Rhodes hooked the mic. He walked down the road to look at the blue Focus. The front end was a mess of shattered plastic, and the right headlight was broken. Rhodes hoped that whoever owned it had good insurance.
Rhodes looked back down the road past the Charger and saw headlights haloed by the mist. In a few seconds Deputy Ruth Grady arrived and parked her car behind the one Rhodes had been driving. He walked back to meet her.
“What’s up?” she asked when she got out of the car.
“Car hit a wild hog,” Rhodes said. He pointed to the trees. “Driver and passenger are in the woods. I guess we’ll have to look for them.”
Ruth was short, stout, and smart, a good deputy. “Are they armed?”
“I don’t know,” Rhodes said. “They might be. We’ll have to assume that they are. The car’s stolen, and the driver stole some gasoline.”
“Let’s go have a look, then.”
“We’ll have to wait for Alton Boyd,” Rhodes said. “He needs to get rid of a dead hog. The Ford hit it.”
“I hope he comes before it starts to rain.”
“It’s not going to rain,” Rhodes said, looking down the road at more approaching headlights. “Here comes Alton now. Or the wrecker.”
It turned out that it was both of them, one behind the other. The wrecker stopped behind Ruth’s car, and Boyd parked his van behind the wrecker.
The wrecker driver was Cal Autry, a tall, pear-shaped young man with two days’ growth of beard. He wore a Detroit Tigers baseball cap, overalls, a blue shirt, and work boots, all of which were spotted with dark grease.
“Whatcha got for me, Sheriff?” he asked.
“That Focus,” Rhodes said. “We need to get rid of a dead hog first, though.”
“That’ll be my job,” Boyd said. “Let’s take a look at him.”
Boyd was short and bowlegged as a cowboy. He had strong, broad shoulders and the wizened face of a sage. He was no sage, however, and he had a weakness for cheap cigars, which he chewed rather than smoked. The stub of one jutted out from the right corner of his mouth.
The four of them walked to where the hog lay in the road. Rhodes smelled the hog’s powerful stench and thought he saw the animal’s left hind leg twitch.
“Is he alive?” Ruth asked.
“Looks like he’s breathing,” Boyd said.
Rhodes couldn’t tell in the dim light, but the hog’s sides might have moved slightly.
Boyd looked back at the Ford. “Must’ve just stunned him when he hit the car. Hogs got thick hides and thicker skulls. What you wanna do about him?”
“We can’t just leave him here,” Rhodes said. “We need to get him out of the road.”
“Leave him there long enough, maybe he’ll wake up and walk off,” Autry said.
“Maybe he will and maybe he won’t,” Rhodes said. “If he dies, then we have a problem.”
“Buzzards’ll take care of it,” Boyd said. “Eventually.”
“In the meantime,” Rhodes said, “there’s a dead hog in the middle of the road.”
“Yeah,” Boyd said. “There’s that.”
“You’re the animal control officer,” Rhodes said. “What’s the drill? You have a paralyzer dart or anything like that?”
“You must work for a different county if you think paralyzer darts for something this big are in the budget,” Boyd said. He eyed the hog. “Besides, a dart won’t stick in that sucker, ’less you hit him just in the right spot. Let’s make sure he’s alive before we do anything else.”
He walked over to the hog and nudged it with the toe of his shoe.
The hog, which apparently had been waiting for just that moment, squealed like a set of bad brakes. Boyd jumped straight back, almost knocking Rhodes down. Autry caught Rhodes before he fell, just as the hog lurched to its feet.
It stood on wobbly legs for a second, then lumbered sideways down the road as if it had been drinking someone’s corn squeezings. After it had gone about twenty yards, it turned and stared back at Boyd, its eyes glowing almost red in the afternoon mist. It opened and closed its mouth, showing off its yellowed tusks.
Boyd turned to run. Rhodes and Autry jumped for the ditch.
The hog lowered its head, squealed, and charged.
Boyd stepped on his own foot. He fell forward, flat on his face, and the hog ran straight over his back. Without ever slowing down, it slammed head-on into the Focus with a powerful crunching sound that signaled the breaking of the other headlight and the splintering of the fender. The hog squealed again, a high, despairing note. It stood facing the car and rocked from side to side for a moment before falling over on its side and lying still.
“Should’ve shot it in the head when we had the chance,” Autry said as he and Rhodes got to their feet. “Then it’d have been dead for sure.”
“I think it’s dead now,” Ruth said, coming up from the ditch on the other side of the road. She stood well away from the hog, as did the others.
Rhodes helped Boyd to his feet. The animal control officer had lost his cigar, which lay in the road. Boyd didn’t pick it up.
“Are you okay?” Rhodes asked.
Boyd felt his ribs and reached around to feel his back. “Might be bruised up a little. Scratched, too.”
“What about the hog?” Rhodes asked.
“Put a bullet in his head,” Autry said. “That’ll settle him.”
“No need for that,” Ruth said. “I’m sure he’s dead this time.” She walked over to the hog and put a foot on his side. “He’s not breathing.”
“That Ford must be tougher than it looks,” Boyd said.
“Better get him in your van,” Rhodes told him.
“You gonna help?”
“We’ll all help.” Rhodes looked at Autry. “Right?”
“I’ll have to charge the county for my time,” Autry said.
“That figures,” Rhodes said.
Earlier that day there had been a report from a convenience store where a man had driven off without paying for the gas he’d pumped into a blue Ford Focus. The Focus had been in and out of town over the last couple of months, and the driver had committed at least three other petty crimes.
Rhodes had been driving near the store when the report came over his radio, and he’d spotted the car at an intersection just at the edge of town. As soon as the driver saw the sheriff’s cruiser in his rearview mirror, he’d sped off, and Rhodes had taken off after him.
Now the chase had ended with Rhodes helping wrestle the dead body of a stinking feral pig into the back of the county’s animal control van.
“I wish you’d look at the tushes on that rascal,” Boyd said, looking down at the hog’s impressive tusks. “They could open up a fella’s belly like a buzz saw.”
Rhodes preferred not to think about that and said so.
“What you think got them so stirred up?” Boyd asked.
“Hunters,” Rhodes said.
Feral hogs were a big problem in Blacklin County and all over that part of the state. There were well over a million of them roaming around Texas. Some people estimated the number was closer to two million, all of them rooting up wetlands and fields, tearing up cattle feeders, breeding faster than rabbits, and eating everything in sight. Hunting them did very little to reduce their numbers. Some people seemed to enjoy it, however, and at least the hunting got rid of a few of them. Some of the hogs, the younger ones, could be used for meat, but the older ones, like the one that had hit the Ford, were next to worthless.
“Let’s load it up,” Rhodes said.
Boyd had driven past the hog and backed the van up to it. He got out and opened the van’s back doors. Everybody bent down and took hold of one of the hog’s legs.
“Heave,” Rhodes said, and they lifted the dead animal up. Grunting with the effort, they guided its narrow head into the back of the van.
Everybody shoved, and the hog slid into the van. Boyd slammed the door.
“Sure hate to drive back to town with that thing smellin’ like it does,” he said.
“That’s why they pay you the big bucks,” Autry said, wiping his hand on his pants. “Who’s going to help me hook up that Focus?”
“I would,” Rhodes said, “but I’d have to charge you for my time.”
“Ha-ha,” Autry said, and he clomped off to do his job.
“Drop it off at the impound lot,” Rhodes called to him, “and don’t touch anything on the inside.”
“I know my job,” Autry said.
“What about us?” Ruth asked. “What’s our job? Are we going after the men from the Ford?”
“That’s why they pay us the big bucks,” Rhodes said. “I heard a lot of shooting earlier.”
“The hunters are bound to be gone by now, don’t you think?”
“Maybe, but there might be some more of those hogs hanging around. We’ll need to be careful.”
“I’d hate to have to go after anybody in those woods,” Boyd said. “ ’Specially if they had guns.”
“All you have to do is get rid of that hog,” Rhodes said.
“Thinkin’ about what you’re gonna do, I’d say the hog don’t smell so bad after all.”
Boyd got in his van and drove away. Autry already had the Focus up on the wrecker, and he followed Boyd. They’d have to drive about a quarter of a mile before they found a place to turn around and head back to Clearview.
Rhodes and Ruth got their shotguns and flashlights out of the county cars.
“Watch where you walk,” Rhodes told the deputy. “The hogs have torn up the field pretty bad.”
Rhodes hoped he could make it to the woods without falling. Not that he was eager to get into the woods.
“Didn’t you have a problem with some hogs once upon a time?” Ruth asked.
“It was before you came to work with us,” Rhodes said, remembering the time he’d spent in the hospital. “It could’ve been worse.”
They walked a little farther, picking their way carefully, and Ruth said, “Did you get a look at the men in the car?”
“Not much of one. I know that one of them was smaller than the other one and had on a blue shirt. That’s about it.”
“What about the clerk where they stole the gas?”
“I don’t think so. He was busy with a customer.”
“There’s one in the store, I’m sure,” Rhodes said. “I don’t know if they have one for the parking lot.”
In fact, he was pretty sure they didn’t. Clearview, Texas, wasn’t exactly the place to go to see all the latest high-tech surveillance equipment in action.
“So we don’t have much to go on,” Ruth said.
“We don’t,” Rhodes said, “but if we run across two men lost in the woods, we can be pretty sure they’re the ones we’re looking for.”
“What about the hunters?”
“They won’t be lost, and like you said, they’re probably gone. I haven’t heard any shooting lately, and I haven’t heard anything from the dogs in a good while, either.”
Almost as soon as Rhodes spoke, they heard shots, two flat cracks from somewhere in the trees.
“Those weren’t rifle shots,” Ruth said.
“Handgun,” Rhodes said. “Somebody’s doing some close-in work.”
“On a hog?”
“The dogs could’ve pulled one down. The hunters could have used a pistol to kill it.”
Ruth was skeptical. “You said you hadn’t heard the dogs, and neither have I. The hunters are gone. Even if they were here, I don’t think they’d be using a pistol.”
“We’ll just have to see what we find,” Rhodes said. “And be careful.”
When they entered the woods, the going wasn’t any easier. There were lots of oaks and pecan trees, which was to be expected. The hogs looked for mast and rooted up the ground as they fed on it. Rhodes stumbled but put out a hand and caught hold of a tree branch to avoid falling.
“I’m surprised a lot of those hunters don’t break their legs,” Ruth said while Rhodes steadied himself.
“I think there have been a couple of them in the ER this year,” Rhodes said.
“You might be there next.”
“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”
They started on their way again, and Ruth said, “Where do you think those shots came from?”
“Straight ahead, more or less. It’s hard to be sure, though, in these trees.”
The mist was thicker under the trees, and it was darker than it had been in the field. Rhodes remembered some scary animated movie he’d seen when he was a kid. He didn’t recall much about it other than tree branches grasping at people in the dark, but grasping trees weren’t nearly as dangerous as wild hogs.
Or as people with guns, for that matter.
“Do you hear something?” Ruth asked.
Rhodes stopped to listen. He heard some night noises, a squirrel or a bird in the tree branches, a car on the road a long way off, a screech owl somewhere ahead of them.
“People talking, I mean,” Ruth said when he told her.
“No,” Rhodes said.
“I was thinking about those pistol shots,” Ruth said. “If somebody shot a hog, they’d be hauling it out of here. The dogs would be barking. We’d hear a truck.”
Rhodes had thought the same thing.
“We’d better be careful,” Ruth said.
“I thought we were being careful.”
“You know what I mean.”
Rhodes knew, all right, and he planned to take plenty of care, though it was hard to walk through unfamiliar woods without making noise. The only good thing about it was that they hadn’t had to use the flashlights yet. The lights would have made them good targets.
“What’s that up ahead of us?” Ruth whispered.
“Looks like somebody’s sitting there,” Rhodes said, and they stood still, trying to make out the person or whatever it was.
Rhodes could see a dark bulk lying still near the trunk of the tree. If it was a man, he wasn’t moving. Rhodes moved forward. Ruth moved away from him, and both of them brought up their shotguns.
When they got to within ten or fifteen yards of the figure, it became clear that it was a man. Rhodes called out to him.
“This is the sheriff,” he said. “Put your hands behind your head and don’t move.”
He waited for a couple of seconds, and Ruth said, “Maybe he heard you. He’s not moving.”
“He’s not putting his hands behind his head, either,” Rhodes said.
He punched the button that turned on his flashlight and, holding the light well away from himself, trained the beam on the man. His head was at an odd angle, and his open eyes reflected the light.
“I think he’s dead,” Ruth said.
Rhodes directed the beam at the man’s chest, and then he saw the dark stains on the front of a blue shirt.
“It wasn’t a hog that we heard being shot,” Ruth said.
They walked over to the man and shined both flashlights on him. He was the smaller of the two men Rhodes had seen, the one who’d been driving. He hadn’t shaved in a day or so, and his clothes looked as if they hadn’t been changed for a while.
“This probably explains those pistol shots we heard,” Rhodes said. “This is a crime scene now.”
“Unless it was an accident,” Ruth said.
“Possible. Not likely.”
“We can’t work the scene very well in this weather,” Ruth said.
“We’ll do the best we can,” Rhodes said. “I’ll get started. You go back and radio Hack and tell him to get Duke and Buddy out here to patrol the area. Tell him to put out a bulletin, and tell him to spread the news that there’s an armed and dangerous man on the loose out here.”
“An armed and dangerous man with no description.”
“That’s right. I couldn’t tell anything about him. Probably average size and weight, and that’s all.”
“People will love to hear that,” Ruth said. “Milton Munday will love it even more.”
Milton Munday was the Clearview radio station’s muckraking talk show host, and Rhodes knew Ruth was right. Munday would work himself into a frenzy about a nondescript madman with a gun.
“We have to let people know anyway,” Rhodes said.
“I know. I’ll talk to Hack.”
“Bring the camera back with you.”
“Don’t tell Hack any more than you have to.”
“I won’t,” Ruth said. “Do you think there are any clues lying around here?”
“Not a chance,” Rhodes said.
The ground around the tree had been rooted up by hogs, and sticks and leaves lay all over the place. The hunters might or might not have been there, though someone other than the dead man certainly had been. It was just that it was hard to tell where anyone might have walked because the hogs had torn up the ground.
“It would be handy if somebody had dropped a driver’s license,” Ruth said.
“How many times has that happened?”
“Not many, not around here. But you read all the time about bank robbers who provide their ID if the teller asks them or about some goober who’ll show his license to a store clerk he’s robbing if the clerk says only adults can rob the place.”
“The key phrase in that being ‘not around here,’ ” Rhodes said.
“Sure would make life easier if it did happen.” Ruth shined her light on the dead man. “What about him?”
“We’ll need to get him out of here,” Rhodes said.
“How will we do that?” Ruth asked. “He’s bigger than we are.”
“Have Hack call the EMTs.”
“It won’t be easy for them to get back in here.”
“We need the justice of the peace, too,” Rhodes said. “To declare the man dead.”
“The JP won’t like having to come out here any more than the EMTs will.”
“That’s why they pay him the big bucks,” Rhodes said.
Copyright © 2011 by Bill Crider
Bill Crider is the winner of two Anthony Awards and is an Edgar Award finalist. He lives with his wife in Alvin, Texas.