Chapter 1

The Town Picnic

It reeked like grilling meat, beer, and popcorn past the candy-cane-looking posts on either side of the fairground entrance. The August heat made the trash stench mingle with the food aromas as I patted the pocket of my jeans, feeling for my pocketknife just in a case trouble occurred with the Hatfield boys. They've been known to come across the river to our annual picnics and stir up trouble.

Roseanna tagged beside me, adjusting the sleeves of her sundress and already smelling of sweat. She'd sprayed enough of that Clinique Happy to make a person choke, but heat has a way of making everything and everyone stink. Especially heat like this.

I wiped the trail of sweat streaming down my forehead and tugged at the front of my t-shirt to fan air on my neck. My wife, Mary, lagged behind us, pushing Cora's stroller ahead of her. We'd look to sit under the beer tent for a while. Well, us men would. The girls would hang out for a while before heading to the bazaar to spend their money on useless shit they didn't need – plastic pearls the seller made out to be the real McCoy, plaques of boybands and Britney Spears, and maybe a psychedelic mushroom candle so faux hippies could look cool to their buddies.

"Where are we supposed to meet everybody, Tolbert?" Roseanna asked, craning her neck as she gazed toward the tents.

"Budweiser tent." I glanced toward the grill, taking note of a few Hatfields standing with their backs against the fence. Some of them leered at us. Ellison Mounts gobbled a hotdog as he paid no mind to us. It puked ketchup onto his shirt; he looked down, dismay making his pale lips curve downward.

My sister seized my arm. "There they are!"

"Took you long enough to show up." Sam tipped his Coke at us when we wandered over to where our family was gathered. "We were thinking you guys wouldn't come."

"Where's Pa?" I pulled out a chair for Mary. She pecked me on the cheek before sitting, pulling our daughter's stroller close to the table. Right away, she unpacked the diaper bag and opened a can of pureed peas.

"Around here somewhere," he said vaguely. "Ma took the girls to the rides so they won't want to go on after we eat."

"Probably a good thing." I nodded at the girls. "You two want something to drink?"

"Just water." My sister didn't like drinking anything that had sugar in it, especially pop.

"Mountain Dew, if they have it," Mary said.

"Be right back." I wove through the crowd, grabbing a few napkins off an abandoned table to mop my face. My mouth was drier than the dirt beneath my boots and frankly, I wouldn't mind if we got a good crackling storm tonight to cool things down. A heavy rainfall, too – that would feel sweet. We hadn't had rain in over a week and the humidity only made things more unbearable. Made me wonder if God was punishing us like Ma always said.

As I wiped the napkins over my forehead, I ran smack into a man built like a football player. He turned a head over his shoulder, favoring me with so harsh of a glare, I froze.

"Watch it, asshole," he growled.

I snorted, trying to conjure up a cocky comment when it hit me who the dude was - Ellison Hatfield. I hadn't seen him in a while. He looked basically the same – enormous, beefy, and with a stature that gave one the impression he'd done something meaningful with his forty-something years of life. He was a war hero, and people around here respected that. That all-American patriotism won him a secure job in politics across the river.

Even with a dozen purple hearts and a staunch belief in the government, a person could still be a jerk.

Hatfield turned away to chat with his politico buddies, leaving me to escape his wrath without anymore argument. Sure, I wouldn't mind teaching that shitchicken a thing or two where trespassing onto McCoy turf was concerned, but Pa told my brothers and me earlier that week we'd better stay out of trouble if we knew what was good for us.

I bought a Dasani water for Roseanna, the pop for Mary, and a glass of Budweiser for myself.

When I returned to the table, I found some of my other brothers – Pharmer, Bill, Bud, and Calvin – had plopped down on the bench, all sweaty and with beers and burgers. They cussed like drunken hillbillies when I slid into a seat beside my wife.

"Saw that Hatfield bastard threaten you," Pharmer said. "Why didn't you pop him one in the mouth?"

I set down my beer and wiped my mouth. "Didn't feel like it."

"Man, you should have just knocked his teeth down his throat. He'd be shitting them for weeks on end!"

"Pa said not to tangle with the Hatfields today, even if they are at our picnic," my younger sister said. "Why can't you boys just let it alone for once?"

"Because, Ro, they should stay on their side of the river, not come over here like the barbarians they are," he said.

"They always come to our elections, too, trying to bribe people into voting for people they want to win," I added. I leaned against the cafeteria-style table, my arms folded together on top, and narrowed my eyes at Ellison Hatfield as he wandered into the open air to join his brother, Devil Anse.

Anse was our pa's worst enemy. There was talk he had something to do with Uncle Harmon's death. To add to a litany of miseries, his relative, Floyd, also swiped a couple of our hogs. And, to make things worse, his family business was a huge success whereas we were simple farmers, factory workers, and didn't have war heroes to stand behind our name. I didn't like him for the same reasons Pa hated him; it didn't help that his eldest son was a playboy who constantly eyed McCoy women. And apparently, they owed my pa some money to boot that they kept "forgetting" to pay.

"Probably part of the reason Bush got in office," Bud grumbled.

"Y-eah…" I stuck a thumb into the pocket of my jeans, where I'd stuck my Swiss Army Knife earlier that morning. I'd staggered out of bed a good half-hour before Mary to sharpen my blade, just in case…

"Why don't you guys ever talk about anything else?" Roseanna asked. "All I hear is gritching about the Hatfields and how they are monsters. Don't you have any other interests?"

"Bee-keeping," Pharmer said weakly. "That counts for an interest, right?"

"I dance pretty damn good, too. That doesn't not count," I said. It's partly how I met Mary.

She shrugged. "I guess. But can't we have a day where there's no talk about them?"

Her pretty face was so full of pleading, I couldn't help but sigh. "Okay, Ro. I'll shut up about them."

"That goes for the rest of you, too," Sam threw in. "Let's forget the Hatfields exist."

Someone switched on a radio over by the counter. A Red Hot Chili Peppers song streamed into the air, mixing with the stenches, the beer, and the laughter of everyone else in and around the tent.

Roseanna went off by herself after the incident in the beer tent. That was her way, though. A popular girl in high school, she had no trouble getting with a group of friends and escaping us completely. Not like she did it on purpose. Family had always been important to her. She didn't like to disappoint Ma or Pa in anyway and, except for Alifair, there wasn't a person in the family who disliked her sweet nature.

I might as well say right off Ma and Pa had a huge passel of kids. Bred like rabbits, one might say, for there were fifteen of us – Josephine was the oldest, followed by Jim, Floyd, me, Sam, Lilburn, Alifair, Roseanna, Calvin, Pharmer, Randolph Junior (Bud), Bill, Adelaide, Trinvilla, and Fanny was the caboose. Josephine and Lilburn hightailed it a long time ago.

After draining a few glasses of beer, I wandered around the grounds with Mary and Cora. She had me push the stroller while looking at the various doodads in the bazaar. Picking up a silk shawl the color of the sky before a tornado, she said, "This is somewhat pretty, isn't it? For my ma?"

"Pretty nice." I felt the fabric. "How much does it cost?"

"I dunno. Let met check."

While she checked, I caught sight of Roseanna walking with a tall, slender boy in a Weezer t-shirt and a baseball cap turned backwards. Something he said made her tip her head back, shrieking with laughter.

"Tolbert, look at this one." Mary socked me in the arm. "This is prettier."

Cora babbled in her stroller. She turned over a stuffed Spongebob Ma had won her at a balloon-popping game. My head started to pound.

"It's nice," I said absently, looking again for Roseanna and that boy, but they weren't in sight anymore.

Stay out of it, I told myself. I had a wife, so what was wrong with her getting herself a boyfriend? Still, I was five years older than her, and ever since she was born, I always felt a need to look after her, especially when she turned out to be the prettiest of the girls.

I tried to not worry about my sister, but all through the bazaar trek, I did. Even when I tried impressing Mary on the frog launch game, as well as the balloon pop and the water races, I couldn't help thinking about Ro. I won Mary an enormous stuffed cat and a pink unicorn for Fanny, who hugged me around the waist when I gave it to her. I downed a few more beers with my brothers and shoveled a half-pounder burger with all the fixings down my throat. But again…my mind just wandered to my sister and that boy…whoever he was.

We left after dark. There were no more Hatfield run-ins to speak of, so when Pa had us gather in the parking lot before heading home, he did a headcount.

"Fourteen," he said, frowning. "Where's Roseanna?"

Alifair's eyes shimmered with anger. "Good question."

"Well, boys? Where's your sister?" Right away, he favored us with his famous glare. It was the expression he carried whenever talking about Devil Anse and his family. I shifted my eyes to the side, to where I saw the Hatfield patriarch helping his wife into his sleek, black Lincoln. She was vastly pregnant and waddled instead of walked, though she still grinned as if there was no discomfort.

"I saw her a little while ago," Pharmer said.

"Yeah…" Bill jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "I think by the bazaar?"

"Or maybe it was the Ferris wheel," Bud offered.

"You guys have no clue where she is, do you?" Pa asked. "I asked you to keep an eye on your sisters and womenfolk today, being the Hatfields were going to be cluttering up the area. And you didn't do what I said for you to do, as usual." He scratched the back of his neck. "How could you all disappoint me like that?"

I cleared my throat. "Last I saw of her, she was hanging around with some boy."

"Boy?" His eyes practically bulged out of their sockets. "What boy?"

"Beats the piss out of me. I didn't recognize him."

He stepped closer to me. "What'd he look like?"

"Tall and skinny. He had on a baseball cap."

"There's tons of guys that look like that," Sam said.

Pa nodded. "No fooling."

Fanny stood up straight. "Should I go look for her, Pa?"

"Bill, go with her." My father jerked his head in a nod toward my younger brother. They scurried back onto the fairgrounds to search for the girl, and we disbanded.

Mary strapped Cora into her carseat while I slid behind the wheel, trying to place a name to the boy. If I'd have gotten a better look at his face, I would have been able to do it. But I didn't, so I was screwed. I started up the car once my wife was settled in the passenger seat and swerved out of the parking space.

Driving down the main drag of the town, I examined each and every girl on the sidewalk, and there were quite a few. Who in the hell was that boy anyway? Roseanna was smart enough to know not to affiliate with a Hatfield, so I tried not to worry. For all I knew, he could have been one of the football players she used to hang around with before she graduated a few years ago.

When we got home, the answering machine light was flashing. I leaned against the wall and pressed the button.

"We didn't find Roseanna, so if you see her, be sure to give us a call. We have a suspicion she might've been kidnapped by the Hatfields, so I'll be calling the police. We'll go looking for her…"

I headed out the door.

"Tolbert, where are you going?" Mary shouted as I stepped back into the heat.

"They didn't find my sister, so I'm going to help look for her."

I slammed the door behind me as Cora started to wail.