Sometime in the 1940s, a young mother in Burley County gave birth to a baby girl. The mother was only in her teens, just a girl herself, and the shame of it was too great to be borne, especially around the little hollers of eastern Kentucky, the way people gossip and judge there. On top of it, the no 'count father was long gone by the time the baby came. The girl felt she deserved sympathy
, not condemnation.
And so she did the only thing she knew to do. She hiked up Red Thrush Mountain one day and left the child in the woods. That night, she claimed the baby had been stolen from her crib. The sympathy she wanted came in spades, but it only lasted a day or so. An old granny woman who had helped with the birth sensed the girl was telling a lie. She grabbed her by the hair and slapped the truth out of her. Soon a party of lawmen, the girl, and the granny woman were all headed up the hill to see if the baby was still alive.
There was a tiny feed sack dress on the ground where the baby had been left, covered in feline hair. But it hadn't been torn, and there was no evidence of blood anywhere, though bobcat prints were all over the place.
The baby had disappeared altogether.
Over the years the story became a part of the local folklore, the details changing according to circumstance. But the core of the tale remained the same. The baby had been raised by bobcats, people said. They talked of a wild girl who roamed high up in the woods on Red Thrush Mountain, making her lair in caves and rotted out logs. As time went on, the girl of the story became a woman, a feral animal, not to be approached under any conditions. Like all mountain stories, there were other ones that helped to prop it up. One time a team of geologists working for the mining company found a deer skin, stretched and tied with sinew to a stick frame. The site was miles away from any area trafficked by even the most adventuresome outdoorsmen. The group claimed to have seen bare footprints there, too, narrow ones. Another time a mountain spelunker swore he found evidence of someone living deep in a cave, though he could never again locate the entryway. And there were many supposed sightings by hunters. A filthy, naked girl running wild through the dense brush. A girl wearing skins and carrying a fire- hardened spear. A wild-looking girl who walked with bobcats, her hair a tangled nest grown to the waist, blacker than coal. Most of the stories were dismissed for what they were, fantastical accounts with little basis in fact. But others were more believable, according to the source, and the story persisted.
To get to Indian Trace, Sheriff Curley Knott had to drive through the deep holler in Cyclops, a forlorn place that seemed never to end. He steered the cruiser around sharp twists and over rises, past run-down single wides that should have been abandoned, and between old coal company row houses about to fall over. Here and there someone sat on a rickety porch or leaned over the hood of a car. Mostly he got unwelcome stares.
At the back of the holler, a steep road with switchbacks that threaded through high limestone walls led the way to an old couple's homestead just below the Trace. The husband explained that he had heard a shotgun blast up on the rise behind the cabin a day earlier, and then another one seconds later. When he went to investigate he found two godless-looking men, harvesting a dead bear. "I told them boys there were two problems with what they was doing," he said. "First one is, it ain't bear season. Second one is, they was on my property without permission."
"What did they think of that?" the sheriff asked.
"The long haired one said I forgot about the third problem, that neither of them give a goddamn about number one nor number two. Said they was actually doing me a favor by leaving me the bear meat. But that if I didn't want it, they'd as like to kill me for being an ungrateful sonuvabitch. The other one pointed a gun at me and laughed. It was them Clatter brothers. I seen them up here before. They must've come across the bear just by luck. Bears are pretty rare around here. They mostly stay up above that notch. High up there. That's where them boys are headed, I think."
She had been quiet up until then, but now the old man's half-Shawnee wife chimed in. "That meat's befouled by them two. I wouldn't touch it. I said let the buzzards have it." She shook her head mournfully.
"Ok," the sheriff said, "let's go take a look."
The couple led the sheriff to the kill site, not too far from their little cabin. But about twenty yards from the animal, the old woman stopped short. "You all go ahead," she said. "I seen it once. And I wish I hadn't." The men went on without her. As they neared the animal, Curley could see the red and black gore that clotted the high grass around the carcass. He had seen hundreds of dead animals in his time, had killed many himself, in fact. But there was something profane about the black bear that unsettled him. For one, the paws had been removed. The old man said he watched Cornelius Clatter take an axe to the animal. The hide, too, had been harvested, but the meat was left to rot on the bones. Flies swarmed around the carcass in a continually moving black cloud. Smeared with blood, the animal's sharp teeth sat open wide in an agonizing howl.
"By God this is strange," Curley said.
"It's unholy is what it is. It ain't natural," the old woman shouted from back on the path. Curley wondered how she had even heard him.
When they returned to the cabin, the man said that he didn't want the Clatter brothers arrested so much as he wanted them to stay off his land. He feared them, yes, but he feared more for the animals. In fact, the old man said, he'd not have made the report at all, but the woods high above Indian Trace were home to plenty of black bear nowadays, and he knew that the Clatters would likely come through his property again, killing and defiling.
"They're unclean," the old woman swore, pointing a crooked finger at Curley, who now noticed her high cheekbones and near black eyes. "They're a pox on these hills. I only hope they go too far. Beyond that notch up there is where they're headed. There's bear dens up there, and God knows what else. Don't follow them too far, sheriff. What's up there can't tell between good and not good. That's a dark
wood up there, is what my grandfather called it. Anyone that hunts up there is just as like to be
hunted. You be careful."
After he radioed in, Curley outfitted himself with the hiking boots and light gear he kept in the cruiser. He was probably the best tracker in the county, but he didn't need to be. The Clatters took no pains to cover their tracks--cigarette butts, beer cans, shit and toilet paper. Not far from the bear kill, he came across a heavy canvas bag hung high in a tree. It dripped fluids and had already begun to stink. He figured it to be the hide and paws, and whatever else the Clatters had harvested from the animal they happened upon at Indian Trace. Curley wondered how the brothers ever got close to an animal, the way they hunted. But they were headed far up, beyond the notch. Surely they'd camp beforehand and start out early, using better cover, he thought. He hoped he would find them before then. Actually, part of him hoped he would never find them at all. He wasn't thrilled about going beyond that notch.
The fact was, the more he thought about it, and the further he hiked and the closer he got to the notch, the more he felt an impulse to turn around. He couldn't help but remember that time in the Mekong Delta. He wished he had turned around then, him and Brody. The two of them had to scout a remote area near a channel bank before a search and destroy mission. There hadn't been reports of any activity there, but they needed to be sure. According to Brody, it was supposed to be a half-hour in the woods, a "fuckin' nature hike," he said. Problem was, the area didn't match up with the map. They followed a tributary upstream, through dense palm trees and mangrove roots, but it seemed never to end. At length, Curley began to feel it. Not the enemy. It was different than that feeling. It was something else, something of the jungle, something primal.
At one point, an animal moved in the trees up ahead of them, a large mammal, Curley figured. It let out a low, guttural moan. The sound was foreign to Curley, but he couldn't mistake the meaning. Brody readied to fire, but Curley shook his head. "There's no people out here," he whispered. "None thats alive, anyway." They backed out of there, turned around and headed for the rally point. But it wasn't long before they realized they were off the map again, on a different route from the one they took earlier.
"Fuck," Brody said. "We're lost." And Curley didn't counter him.
When they came upon it, they were already deep in the bush, wandering aimlessly. Against a felled durian tree lay a dead VC, his gun on the ground, the body shredded and disemboweled by something clawed, with deep incisors. And then they heard the rustling again, behind them now, and the low moan. When they stopped moving, the noises stopped, too. They were being followed, Curley realized. At times, they were afraid to move an inch. "There ain't but one way to do this," Curley finally said. "And you ain't gonna understand it, Brody. But you gotta trust me."
It was nightfall when they finally got back to the rally point. They had left their rifles on the banks and floated down the tributary for God knows how long, maybe a few miles, trying to stay close to the mangroves. Brody thought it was crazy to abandon the weapons, but Curley swore it was the only way.
Something was out there.
It was a long trek over rough terrain, a steep grade, and some muddy patches, but when the time came it wasn't hard to get the drop on Cornelius. Up high on the hillside, the sheriff could smell smoke from a little camp he figured to be about a mile away. When he finally got eyes on the situation, he circled back around and drew down on the older brother from behind. "Nothing sudden, ole boy," he said.
Cornelius sat on a fallen chestnut on the edge of a tiny clearing. He didn't move except to drag on a cigarette. "You here about that bear?" he asked. "'Cuz we got bigger problems, Law Man."
"Turn and face me."
"You said 'nothing sudden.' I'm just following orders."
"Turn around, Cornelius."
Cornelius forced a mirthless laugh and spun around on the tree trunk to face the sheriff. His stringy hair, matted with sweat across his forehead, fell almost to his shoulders. A lower tooth was missing. In one hand he held a cigarette and in the other a pint of Early Times. "I killed that bear on that old man's property," he said. "Poached it, I guess you call it. I don't mind to be arrested for it neither. But I got business up here first." He looked the sheriff up and down. "You're Curley Knott, right?"
The exchange wasn't what Curley had expected. "Where's that brother of yours?" he asked. Curley scanned the area around the camp, his gun still drawn. Cornelius took a deep breath, and Curley noticed the red in the man's eyes. Cornelius ground out the cigarette, pulled hard on the bottle and then replaced the cap. "Here," he said, tossing the bottle to Curley. "Take a snort. You'll need it for what I'm gonna show you." Curley thought it better to wait than to ask just yet.
Cornelius stared up into the tree canopy, but whether to ponder one of the big questions or to keep the tears from falling, Curley didn't know. One thing was for certain. Something was wrong with the man. A turkey vulture swooped down from an opening above and landed on a low branch across the tiny clearing. Cornelius tore a piece of decayed wood from the chestnut and threw it at the bird. "Get on out of here, goddamnit." Then he dropped his head into his hands and began to cry. Softly at first, and then with some real volume. In time he started to convulse, his shoulders shaking.
Curley had seen this before. Had been there himself, in fact, in the Delta. He needed details, but Cornelius had begun a mourning wail Curley knew better than to interrupt. He scanned the area again and took up a rifle that lay against the log. For a long while he waited, standing there, his eyes on Cornelius. At one point he actually thought to comfort the man, but he just couldn't. The act would have taken him back to the Delta, and that he couldn't do right now.
Finally he asked, "What happened, Cornelius?"
He had to wait a long while for a response, but eventually Cornelius rose from the fallen tree. "It's this way," was all he said. Curley followed at a distance, his gun still drawn, but it wasn't Cornelius he was worried about anymore. Something bad had happened. Curley could feel it, even more so the further they moved along. They crossed several fallen trees and wound their way up through a series of sandstone boulders. It was tough going. "We're headed toward the notch," Curley said at one point. Cornelius kept moving, silently. They hiked for over an hour.
William's body lay at the base of a wide sycamore not too far from the edge of the notch. "He come out here to scout out a route," Cornelius said. "And because he liked to be alone in the woods, I guess. Anyway, he said he wanted to go alone. He was like that." Cornelius asked the sheriff if he could have the bottle again. Curley tossed it to him and moved to look over the body.
"Sweet Jesus," Curley said. The neck and torso had been raked deep by something with claws. And Curley saw some puncture wounds, too, from sharp canines. But nothing seemed to be ripped away. The flesh wasn't torn or shredded, though the ground was covered in blood, and flies buzzed everywhere. Curley looked for animal hair on the body, but he couldn't find any, and it vexed him. He felt the heat rise up inside of him, like that time in the Delta with Brody and the dead VC. He felt something else now, too, something feral in the air. Then, in the distance, he thought he heard a woman's cry, shrill long notes on the air.
"That's a bobcat," Cornelius said. "By God I will skewer that bitch."
"A bobcat didn't do this," Curley said. "This is something bigger. Maybe a mountain lion, or a bear. But not a bobcat."
The feminine cry sounded again, a long and desperate keening. Curley looked for prints in the area, moving carefully all around the body now, and out from it in a circle. He had to sit down when he finally saw it, on the other side of the tree. He would have fallen down otherwise. In the soft mud were narrow human footprints.
They led away from the body, toward the notch.
Back at the camp the sheriff said, "It's just a goddamn myth, Cornelius. There's no wild woman on Red Thrush. The prints were made by something else. Have to be. They just look human. We'll get some people up here and remove his body tomorrow, or the day after. Right now, we gotta get moving. We gotta get down the mountain, all right?"
Cornelius had opened another pint of whiskey from a backpack and had been drinking from it since they had got back at the camp. Curley really didn't think he had cause to stop him.
"I'm too fucked up to hike back down there now," Cornelius said. "We'll go tomorrow morning, first thing."
It wasn't the way Curley wanted it, but what could he do? An injury on the descent could be dangerous. He could end up with two
dead brothers. And he had to consider the reaction of the Clatter clan. No doubt, they would look to blame the sheriff's department if Cornelius got hurt. And God only knew what that would bring on. No, it was best to stay the night and move out early. Curley even took a few pulls off the pint. "You need to be ready to hike out right after sunrise," he told Cornelius.
Cornelius nodded and looked toward the path they had taken to get to the body. "You ever hear the story about that scientist who come up here to study on coal seams and excavation for one of the companies? Then he got separated from the rest of his crew somehow?"
Curley shook his head. "There are lots of stories. All just stories. People around here . . . you know, that's just part of mountain life. Tall tales."
Cornelius pulled on the bottle and passed it to Curley. "Yeah, but this guy. He never come back down. My cousin worked for the company back then. He said they sent guys up there looking, but they never found a trace of him. Creekside Mining Company. Long time ago."
Curley sipped on the bottle. "Lots of people gone missing in these hills over the years. Accidents happen. People get lost. That sort of stuff. Could be any number of things. What's a bunch of scientists know about mountaineering anyway? You send people like that up here, you're bound to have trouble."
"Hmm. Maybe so," Cornelius said. He got quiet all of a sudden and Curley hoped the matter had been dropped. A barred owl sung out from a tree somewhere in the distance and something small rustled it the brush by the camp.
"Still, them footprints," Cornelius said.
Curley let out an exasperated breath. "Animal tracks, man. That's all."
"Maybe," Cornelius said. A light breeze shook the leaves in the canopy above and the owl sounded again. "You know, you and I could go investigate tomorrow. We got food. Hell, William's not gonna eat his share." He laughed at the realization, but Curley knew he didn't find it funny. "We could go across the notch and see what we find. I mean, we got a dead body up there. Ain't you supposed to look into that, sheriff?"
Curley said, "No. Your brother was not killed by a human being. He was mauled by some animal, or a pack of animals. That's not the business of the sheriff's department."
Cornelius dragged on his cigarette. "Since when did that ever stop you? Most stuff gets investigated by the sheriff's department ain't the business of the sheriff's department, you ask me." He flicked the ash on the ground. "I think maybe you're scared of what's beyond that notch."
Curley took a last pull off the bottle and screwed the cap on. He passed it over to Cornelius. "Cornelius, some old people call that place a dark wood. They say that what's on the other side of that notch should be left alone. People oughtn't to venture out there, they say."
Cornelius took a drink. "Hell, you're scared, sheriff."
Curley pulled William's sleeping bag up high on his shoulders and settled in. "You're goddamn right I am."
Shafts of grey light had begun to poke through the trees and a wood pecker had started his work somewhere close by.
"Ain't no point in taking the tent and this other shit if we're just coming back up here to get William's body," Cornelius said. " Let's get going. Time ain't on our side, right?" He was already packed up and ready to move out. Curley was a little surprised. He took Cornelius for more of a slow-starter.
"Ok, give me five minutes," Curley said.
"Story of the po-lice. We'll be there when we get there."
Curley let it slide. He didn't need a conflict with Cornelius at this point, and as soon as he had his things together, the pair began to walk out, with Curley leading the way. He hadn't quite got up to pace yet and Cornelius let him know it.
"You're a little stiff there, sheriff. Come on, now. We gotta move, right?"
"I'm movin'. No sense in making a mistake way up here."
Cornelius laughed. "Hell, I thought you was supposed to be some kind of bad-ass mountaineer." Curley didn't like it, and he made a mental note to run Cornelius ragged when they got close to the bottom.
Less than a quarter mile from the camp there was a little drop through a sandstone crevice where the footing was tough. Cornelius passed in front and said, "You best let me lead here, sheriff. It's a little trickier than the training course down at the sheriff's academy." He laughed.
Forbearance wasn't always Curley's strong suit. He grabbed Cornelius' backpack and halted him in his tracks. "Watch how it's done, Jethro," he said. But as he was about to descend into the crevice, he heard Cornelius rustling around for something in his pack. He knew then he had made a mistake. Before he could turn around, he felt a sharp pain at the back of his head. He was only alert long enough to curse himself. And he only knew he had been kicked from behind when he awoke some time later, halfway down the crevice. His head and kidney throbbed, and blood covered his shoulder and back. His weapon was gone now, too, and Cornelius had taken the food and water. The only good thing was that the bleeding had stopped.
"Goddamn," Curley said. "Son of a goddamn bitch."
He knew he'd eventually arrest Cornelius and put him away, once he got down from the mountain, that is. And he could handle the small embarrassment of it, too. The smart thing to do, especially without food or water, was to hike down, call for backup, and wait out Cornelius at the base of the mountain.
But smart didn't always figure in.
Once he got his bearings, Curley started back up the mountain. His head and back ached, but as he began to move ahead, he felt a little energy slowly returning, helped along by his rising anger. At the camp, he collected the dew from the tent into a small pool and drank it down. William's Bowie knife was still there, in his bag, and he threaded the sheath onto his belt. It was early yet and he drizzled the dew from pawpaw leaves and other trees into his mouth as he moved. He figured Cornelius to be maybe an hour or so ahead. He also figured Cornelius had not intended to kill him, but just to abandon him so that he could hunt whatever it was that killed his brother, across the notch. Even so, would Cornelius take a shot in his direction, to ward him off? Maybe. He'd have to be careful.
When he got to a point just beyond William's body, Curley began to question the wisdom of his decision. The notch on Red Thrush was about eighty feet across and forty deep, with a steep drop. It required some technical footwork and some real strength. But by now he was thirsty again, and he hadn't eaten anything except some wood sorrel and Autumn olives. Again, he thought about turning around. But he saw where Cornelius had started across the notch. The track was right there in front of him.
He started down.
Just as he thought, the navigation was tricky but Curley came up on the other side in under an hour. He picked up Cornelius trail on the other side and followed it through ever-thicker and thornier brush, navigating some rock formations and small crevices along the way. But after a few hours of circling back around and re-tracing his steps, finding and then losing the trail again, he realized that Cornelius was not to be found. Curley had lost the trail once and for all. He also realized that the longer he fumbled around up there, the more dangerous things would get. A brief rain allowed him to collect some more water, but he was in no great shape to keep on going. It was then that he decided to cut his losses and head back. He had made several trail markers en route, but he couldn't find any of them now. It was as if they had been removed. Finally he decided to climb to the top of a limestone boulder to see if he could get a better vantage point. When he got to the top, all he saw was forest in every direction.
And then he sensed it. Just as soon as he got down from the boulder. A feral note on the air. He felt it in his mouth when he inhaled. There was a musky, animal smell to it, but something else was there, a scent he couldn't place, underneath the animal scent. He headed back in the direction he thought he had come, moving with more urgency now, the sound of cicadas making a loud din everywhere around him.
It startled him when he first saw it, though it shouldn't have, and he had to tell himself that a dead squirrel was not at all uncommon in a forest full of birds and larger mammals. It was recently mutilated, the meat torn from its small bones. Its guts lay there, covered in flies. Further along was a raccoon, and then a woodchuck. Next was a deer, a good sized buck whose neck had been thrashed and snapped. Bloody bobcat prints led away from the animal and the smell of feline urine was all over the air now.
Curley kept moving, he hoped in the direction of the notch, charging through the brush where it was thick instead of looking for a navigable path around. His hands and face soon became a mass of welts and cuts. He stopped short when he thought he heard something behind him, a rustling in the brush. But when he stopped, whatever it was stopped, too.
"Cornelius, is that you?"
Only the cicadas answered.
There was no getting around it now. Deep in the woods across the notch, he was hopelessly lost. Insects buzzed and leaves shook high up in the canopy. But Curley could feel no wind on the forest floor. Somewhere high above a red tail cawed, but when Curley looked up all he saw were turkey vultures. They circled and dipped, gliding above him easily and without concern, their wings barely moving. They had the advantage now.
Curley drew William's knife from its sheath, but to what end, he really didn't know.
The details are hazy. At times Curley can recall large fragments of it, sometimes in dreams, or when he's out in the woods by himself. But he doesn't know whether or not he can trust them. His memory gets sharper the moment he emerged from the woods, dehydrated and famished, at the foot of the mountain near the old couples' cabin. The woman, the half-Shawnee wife, tended to him. He told the couple about how he confronted Cornelius at the camp, and about William's death at the hands of a bear, or maybe a mountain lion. Later he would lead a team up there to extract the body. But like the old woman when she saw the dead bear the Clatters had mutilated, he would hold back from the actual site itself.
Curley told the old couple that he camped with Cornelius and planned to bring him back out the next day. But Cornelius had gone on before daybreak without telling him, no doubt intending to cross the notch and kill whatever animal took his brother's life. He must've gotten lost on the other side of the notch. Without food or water, Curley said, it would have been stupid to go after him. Instead he waited at the camp for hours. His own injury, he explained, was caused by a fall on the way down. The old man took him at his word, but the wife knew it was a lie. She knew Curley had gone across the notch, to the dark wood her grandfather had warned about. She knew something had happened there, too. She could still feel it on Curley's skin when she tended to him. But she also knew it was better not to ask. For both his sake and hers.
Nowadays, the story all changes around in his dreams. Sometimes the memory comes on the heels of a flashback, the details shifting and moving, even flowing back and forth between the Delta and Red Thrush.
But this much is true. Or at least Curley believes it to be.
When he first came upon Cornelius' body, the scene reminded him of some prehistoric cave paintings he had seen in a book once, as a little boy. The images had fascinated him then, a mixture of photographs and artist's renderings of the people who lived 50,000 years ago. He had turned the pages with both excitement and fear. There was something compelling about the way people had lived, Curley felt, close to the animals, close to danger. There was something primal about it, too, something irresistible, and he felt it then again as he looked at the mutilated body.
Cornelius lay near the low mouth of a cave surrounded by bloody paw prints on the rocks and in the dirt. The prints emanated out from his body, almost in concentric circles, but not so regular a pattern as that. It was a marker, Curley felt. Something claimed, something not to be disturbed. There was a set of what looked like human prints, too, narrow ones, red at the balls and toes. And Curley could smell the strong feline urine again, along with that other scent he still couldn't place. Cornelius' mouth was locked in a silent scream, the missing lower tooth more pronounced now that his lips had been ripped off. Curley saw his own gun on the ground, but he knew better than to take it. Instead, he left William's knife there, placing it gently on the ground by the blade, the grip facing the cave door. He backed away from the opening, slowly, only turning to move ahead once he was well away. At one point on his way out he heard a noise, the feminine cry of the bobcat again. He turned to look back. In the dark mouth of the cave he saw the slow, feline movement of several animals at once. They swarmed over and under one another, in a serpentine dance of sorts. A buzzard landed near the body but quickly screeched and darted off, its wings working hard just to get airborne. Something else moved in the cave mouth then, but it disappeared just as quickly.
It looked like a long tress of black hair.