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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 nonanswer 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.
Copyright © 2011 by Bill Crider