At fifteen, Huger ("you say it YOU-gee") Dillard already knows a great deal about the ways of the worldor so he thinks. He may not have a father, but with the guidance of his blind "Unc," Leland, and weekends spent at the Hunt Cluba tract of woods and swamp belonging to his familyHuger knows all about the land and the habits of its wildlife, from deer to the pompous Charleston doctors and lawyers who come to hunt them. But nothing can prepare him for the dark events that begin to unfold when he and Unc stumble upon the body of a well-to-do Charleston regular on their land.
Who wanted him dead? And why is the Hunt Club suddenly at the heart of a dark secret worth killing for? Caught in a treacherous labyrinth that stretches deep into the past, Huger and everyone he loves are about to discover painful truths that will irrevocably change them; truths that will shatter a young boy's innocence and test him as a man.
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The Hunt Club
By Bret Lott
HarperCollins PublishersCopyright ©1999 Bret Lott
All right reserved.
My name is Huger Dillard. You say it YOU-gee, not like it's spelled. It's French, I heard.
I'm fifteen years old, and my mom and dad are divorced, and I have my driver's permit. I am telling you this because driving figures in to what happened, as does my mom. My dad, too, in a way, because it's his brother, my Uncle Leland, this all happened to. Him and me both.
It started with a body, the head of it pretty much gone, the hands skinned.
We found it the Saturday after Thanksgiving, out to Hungry Neck Hunt Club. Uncle Leland owns the hunt club, which might make him sound important, or rich. But he's not. The club is just what the family has had in its hands for the last seventy years or so, and is a tract of 2,200 acres, some of it trash land, good for nothing, some of it pretty, set on the Ashepoo. It's forty miles south of Charleston, just past Jacksonboro. Live oak and pine, dogwood and palmetto and poison ivy and wild grapes and all else. Marsh grass down to the Ashepoo. That's about it.
But it's where Uncle Leland lives, in a single-wide. Unc, I call him. For short.
And it's where we found this body.
The body was between stand 17 and 18, twenty yards back off the road and fifty yards or so up from the Ashepoo. Saturday afterThanksgiving is a big day for deer season, most all the members there. The members: doctors and lawyers and what have you from Charleston, the sorts of people you see on the news for whatever reason each night, or in the paper, all of them getting honored or interviewed for one matter or the other.
The body was there on the ground, not much of a head left on it for what I figured must have been a couple rounds off a shotgun. Its hands were skinned, too, from the wrists on down, the muscle dark red and glistening, the tendons all white. Two hands like skinned squirrels.
I wanted to throw up for looking at it. I've seen deer skinned and gutted before a million times, done it a million times myself. I've seen even the fetus taken out of a doe a time or two. I've seen dead things all my life, seen the blood involved. I've seen it.
But this. This.
Unc stood next to me, behind us and beside us a good dozen or so of these doctors and lawyers, all of them decked out in their clean crisp camo hunter outfits, all of them shaking their heads.
They had heads left.
The body, too, had on its own set of crisp camo hunter fatigues, had on a hunter-orange vest.
And in those hands was a shotgun, over-and-under twelve-gauge. Maybe the same one that did what it did to his head. It lay there in the weeds and grass just before the woods started up, where if he'd been one of the ones we'd dropped off, he would have been down on one knee, or maybe on a camp stool, waiting for Patrick and Reynold to let loose the dogs back on Cemetery Road, just this side of the levee. Then the howling'd start, and a buck might've skipped out from across the road, heading back into those woods and toward the deer trails down by the river.
He'd have watched and waited for that howling, that bust loose in the brush, that deer.
But this was a dead body.
And here's the thing. Here's the thing:
A piece of cardboard lay at its feet, one whole side of a toilet-paper box, like you can pick up out back of the Piggly Wiggly. And on the cardboard was written this:
Here lies the dead son of a bitch
Charles Middleton Simons, MD,
killed and manicured by his loving wife.
Busy hands can be the devil's workshop as well.
PS: Leland, can you blame me?
It was all written in a girly curlicue, a black marker. And here was my uncle's name, plain as day.
Nobody'd yet said a thing, none of the dozen or so of us standing at the edge of these woods. It wasn't even sunup yet, the sky still gray and yellow.
"Talk to me, Huger," Unc said, and I felt him put a hand on my shoulder. "What is it?" he said, though I knew he already knew. He'd been the one to tell me to stop the truck.
But he couldn't see it. He'd only smelled it, his head quick turning to my left, my window down. I'd been driving, like always him beside me in the cab, in the bed our load of men. There were three truckloads, us letting off a man at each stand. "Stop," he'd said, too loud. "Stop here," he'd said.
"We aren't even to eighteen yet," I'd said. "Seventeen's not but twenty yards--"
"Stop," he'd said again, his voice no different. Still too loud.
Now here we were. And I could smell it, too. Blood smell, something like the metal smell off the deer when we butcher them back to the clubhouse. But sharper. It smelled dark red, and sharp, like metal in your mouth. That sounds crazy, but that's the words that came to me: dark red, metal.
"Tell me," he said, almost a whisper in my ear now, his hand heavy on me. "What is it?"
He couldn't see it, because he's blind.
I opened my mouth. I wanted to say that the body had no head to speak of. I wanted to say the hands'd been skinned. I wanted to say it had on crisp camo fatigues, and those squirrel hands were holding all over-and-under twelve-gauge. I wanted to say it had on a hunter-orange vest, and that there was a cardboard sign at its feet, right there in the grass just below his newly oiled duck boots.
And I wanted to ask Unc why his name was on that sign.
My uncle is blind, and it's been left to me to be his eyes, my job here at the hunt club. Why I spent every weekend out here with him in his single-wide. Why my learner's permit figures in here.
I'd never seen a dead body before. That's what I wanted to tell him.
I turned to him, the sky above us, it felt, going a brighter yellow even in the second it took to turn.
He was looking at me, him a couple inches taller than me. He had on his sunglasses, that Braves cap he wears. He had on the same khaki shirt and pants as always, the same green suspenders.
And in his free hand was that walking stick he carries everywhere.
I found that stick when I was seven, not but a quarter mile from the trailer. Back when he'd just lost his sight. Back after the fire at his house in Mount Pleasant, in which his wife, my Aunt Sarah, died.
Back when my dad and mom were together, and we three lived here at Hungry Neck in that single-wide, my dad the proprietor of the hunt club.
They brought Unc here from the medical university, where he'd been for two months, his house and wife gone.
He lay in bed for six months in what had been my room, me in a sleeping bag on the couch in the front room. But I didn't mind. I talked to him each day, too. I told him about where I'd been on Hungry Neck, about the turkey I'd seen back past Baldwin Road or about the dove up from the clear-cut on past Lannear Road. I talked to him. And I read to him: the Hardy Boys, The Chronicles of Narnia, Field & Stream.
And I brought him things: a jay's nest once; a single antler, three points; an eagle feather. He took each thing in his hands, felt it.
Sometimes he smiled, other times he didn't. His eyes were bandaged, and he said next to nothing.
But he was what I had: someone who'd listen, while my mom and dad howled at each other out to the kitchen.
Then came that stick, a stick so straight and perfect I knew it'd been dropped off that hickory only for him. And for me. I brought it to him, and I remember he'd smiled at it, and'd sat up, turned in my bed, and stood.
"Huger?" Unc said now, his hand still on my shoulder. "You okay?" he whispered.
"Unc," I said. I said, "It's a body."
I turned back to it. I tried again to line up words that would give Unc what he couldn't see.
This was my job. Nothing I could have figured on when I'd handed him that stick when I was seven.
I swallowed, looked away from the body, from those hands, but all I did was look at my own, there at the end of my pale, skinny arms.
I'm only a kid, was what I saw. Fifteen years old. Thin brown hair just like Unc's, ears too big to the point where I can remember my daddy, before he left us, calling me Wingnut for fun. But though I'm too skinny, have these ears, I can knock shit out of most anybody in the sophomore class. There's nothing much I'm scared of.
I took in a breath. "It's a body," I said again, "and it doesn't have hardly any head to speak of. And the hands've been skinned."
His hand was still on my shoulder, but he turned, faced where that smell he'd found came from. He whispered, "Son of a bitch."
"And your name's involved here, too, Unc," I said.
He was quiet a moment. Still nobody'd said a thing.
His hand went tight on my shoulder a second, then relaxed. He said, "It's Charlie Simons, ain't it." Not a question, but a fact.
I looked at him, saw he had his upper lip between his teeth, biting down hard: what he'll do.
He turned then, started off on his own toward the truck, that stick out in front of him, leading him on.
That was when the dogs started up, way off to the levee, their howling not unlike the sounds of my mom and dad. Just howling in the hopes of turning something up.
Excerpted from The Hunt Club by Bret Lott Copyright ©1999 by Bret Lott. Excerpted by permission.
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