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Excerpt from The Killing Hills by Chris Offutt, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Killing Hills

by Chris Offutt

The Killing Hills by Chris Offutt X
The Killing Hills by Chris Offutt
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2021, 240 pages
    Jun 21, 2022, 240 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Amanda Ellison
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Print Excerpt

Chapter One

The old man walked the hill with a long stick, pushing aside mayapple and horseweed, seeking ginseng. It grew low to the earth obscured by the undergrowth. Last year he'd found several plants in this vicinity, an ideal habitat due to slopes that faced east, away from the hard sun of afternoon. The remnants of a rotting elm lay nearby, another good sign. He stopped to catch his breath. He was eighty-one years old, the oldest man in the community, the only old man he knew.

The ground was damp with dew, and tendrils of mist laced the upper branches. The rise and fall of morning birds filled the air. There were mostly hardwoods in here, trees he liked for their size and bounty of nuts. Cut and split, two trees were enough to keep a family warm all winter.

He moved upslope from the bottom of a narrow holler covered in ferns. Strapped to his belt was a pouch that contained ginseng plants with forked roots. One was large and

sprouted three distinct prongs, each worth a pretty penny. He'd found several smaller plants but left them unbothered in the earth. They needed another year or two to grow unless a rival found them first. He carried a .38 snub-nose pistol. The accuracy fell away drastically after a few yards but it made one heck of a noise, and he kept it visible in his belt. The sight was usually enough to frighten any lowlife ginseng-poacher away.

He climbed to a narrow ridge, pushed aside a clump of horseweed, and saw a cluster of bright red berries. A quick jolt ran through him, the joyous sense of discovery he'd first experienced as a boy hunting ginseng with his brothers. He crouched and dug gently to protect the delicate root in case it was too small for harvest, which it was. Disappointed, he memorized the precise location for next year, noting the landmarks—a hundred-year-old oak and a rock cliff with a velvety moss, green and rusty red. Something caught his vision, a color or a shape that shouldn't have been there. He stopped moving and sniffed the air. It wasn't motion, which ruled out a snake. It might have been light glinting off an old shell casing or a beer can. Either one was no good—it meant someone else had been up this isolated holler.

Curious and unafraid, he moved through the woods, hunched over slightly, sweeping his vision back and forth as if looking for game sign. The land appeared undisturbed. He stood upright to stretch his back and saw a woman lying in an ungainly fashion, her body against a tree, head lolling downhill, face tilted away from him. She wore a tasteful dress. Her legs were exposed and one shoe was missing from her foot. The lack of underpants made him doubt an accidental fall. He moved closer and recognized her features well enough to know her family name.

He returned to the ginseng plant and knelt in the loam. He pierced the dirt with his old army knife and rocked the blade until he could lift the young plant free. Ginseng didn't

transplant well but it was better than leaving it here to get trampled by all the people who'd arrive to remove the body. It was a pretty place to die.

Chapter Two

Mick Hardin awoke in sections, aware of each body part separate from the rest as if he'd been dismantled. He lay on his arm, dull and tingling from hours of pressure against the earth. He shifted his legs to make sure they worked, then allowed his mind to drift away. A few birds had begun their chorus in the glow of dawn. At least it hadn't been a bad dream that woke him. Just birds with nothing to do yet.

Later he awakened again, aware of a terrible thirst. The sun had risen high enough to clear the tree line and hurt his eyes. The effort to roll over required a strength that eluded him. He was outside, had slept in the woods, with any luck not too far from his grandfather's cabin. He pushed himself to a sitting position and groaned at the fierce pain in his skull. His face felt tight as if stretched over a rack. Beside him, three rocks formed a small firepit beside two empty bottles of whiskey. Better the woods than town, he told himself. Better the hills than the desert. Better clay dirt than sand.

Excerpted from The Killing Hills © 2021 by Chris Offutt, reprinted by permission of Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic. All rights reserved.

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