weekend-readsBoar Taint

Bonnie Jo Campbell

The boar hog was advertised on a card at the grocery store for only twenty-five dollars, but the Jentzen farm was going to be a long, slow drive, farther down LaSalle Road than Jill had traveled, past where the blacktop gives way to gravel and farther past, where it twists and turns and becomes a rutted two track. Ernie was finishing the milking when Jill hooked up the stock trailer. He had given her directions already, but before she pulled away, he came out and stood beside the truck and studied her, the way he’d done when she went to Ann Arbor last time. They’d been married almost a year, but maybe he hadn’t been sure she was coming back.

“Are you sure your foot’s OK?” Ernie asked. A cow had stepped on it when a stray dog ran through the barn a few days ago, and she was wearing the laces on her work boot loose.

“It’s fine. I’ll see you in a couple hours,” Jill said. Maybe he was stalling because he didn’t want to go back in the hot barn—it was muggy and smelled of bleach from yesterday’s scrubbing.

Jill said, “Let’s have tomato and bacon sandwiches for supper.”

“You think you got enough daylight? Sure you don’t want to wait until tomorrow?”

“Somebody else’ll get there first thing in the morning.” Jill had just seen the advertisement for the hog an hour and a half ago, and maybe nobody else had seen it yet.
“That road’s going to be muddy and washed out from all this rain,” Ernie said, and ran a big hand through his black hair. He was ten years older than Jill, and if he was like his father, he would go gray by fifty and be no less handsome for it. Like his father, a widower, Ernie’d had his choice of women after his divorce. He said, “You wouldn’t want to try to navigate that road after December with anything but a snowmobile.” He wiped the sweat from his neck with a navy bandanna. There was a bright new blood blister under his ring fingernail.

“No chance of snow today,” she said, and Ernie nodded. Whether it was a joke or serious bad news, Ernie nodded the same way.

“You know, I went to school with a Jentzen kid,” Ernie said. “Had only one pair of overhauls to his name. He never brought anything to eat for lunch, not even lard-and-salt sandwiches like us regular poor kids. He still couldn’t read in the fifth grade.” Ernie folded the handkerchief, slid it into his back pocket. His slow movements worked on her like a liquor, calmed her agitation even when she didn’t want to be calmed.

They heard a long low moo, followed by squeals from the gilts.

“Twenty-five bucks. That’s an awful cheap price for any kind of hog,” Ernie said. “You got to ask yourself.”

Jill nodded. She had asked herself and ignored the answer. She drove out slowly so she could keep looking back at her husband making his way into the barn. The man had an easy way of walking that made her think he could walk all day and all night, too. Whatever poor condition this hog was in, Jill would bring him home, quarantine him for a few weeks, worm him, and dope him with broad spectrum antibiotics. Jill was sure Ernie felt skeptical about this whole plan she had concocted with the neighbor for raising pigs for pig roasts. The longer he didn’t express his skepticism, however, the more desperate she felt about succeeding, especially after her last two farm schemes had gone so badly. Ernie just kept his mind on the same nine-hundred acres of corn, oats, and beans he’d been harvesting for the last decade, and Jill had begun to think maybe she ought to do the same.

She meant to arrive at the Jentzen place in daylight, but she stopped in town to get some rye bread and, as an indulgence, an imported dark chocolate bar with hazelnuts, something she rarely bought for herself, and then she got a little lost on the unmarked dirt roads. As she bumped along too slowly to deter the deer flies, the truck steered itself by staying in the washed-out ruts. When the glove box popped open, she leaned over and extracted a pocket flashlight before slamming it shut. The chocolate bar on the seat thrilled her, perhaps more than was reasonable; she would keep it in her underwear drawer, she decided, and eat one square a day.

The road dead-ended into mud puddles in the yard of a two-story wooden house, and one look told Jill that the Jentzens were not hooked up to the power grid. The setting sun lit the western windows, turned them gold, but the others, those not boarded over, were dark, dusty panes, and the barns beyond were already swallowed in shadow.

People back home in Ann Arbor refused to believe there were still folks without electricity in America. When she first came to Ernie’s a year and a half ago as a post-graduate student working with experimental bean crops, Ernie had only the gasoline generator in the barn for the milking machines and fans; last winter she had persuaded him to get the electricity connected. Now there were incandescent lamps hooked into extension cords in most of the rooms of the farmhouse, but if left to his own devices in the evenings, Ernie still sat at the kitchen table with the oil lamp or the Coleman lantern. Jill was always meaning to convince him to play cards with her or mend household appliances and furniture, but he preferred to rest and talk and drink bottles of cheap beer from the grocery. And in the end, she was happy just to read and have the man touch her with those strong hands of his, calloused and infused with wild energy he picked up from fixing tractors and mending fences and birthing calves. She became weak to the point of stupidity under the influence of those hands. Despite exhaustion, she and Ernie had made love nearly every night through the winter, spring, and summer. Jill did not want to get pregnant—maybe not ever—but she was beginning to fear her birth control pills might not hold up to the frequency and ferocity of their embraces. Ernie already had two kids from his previous marriage, both of whom hated farming.

Jill parked the truck and retied the red handkerchief around her hair, which had gone frizzy from the humidity. A big clapboard house like this Jentzen place could have been a showpiece in the historic district in Ann Arbor, with the siding, trim, and glass all repaired, but out here, rising up from the dark weeds, this turn-of-the-last-century house seemed doomed to collapse. She ascended the steps to the front door and knocked, but the wood was so soft and wet her knuckles made little sound. She might have pushed the door open a few inches and yelled inside, as folks did at her and Ernie’s place, but there was no door handle, and the door was shut tight. After a while, she ventured around the back and walked up the wooden stairs. The bottom step was rotting through in the middle.

She peered through the screen and knocked. She studied the lines of the room until she began to make out the silhouette of a shriveled old man, motionless, wearing a thin undershirt. His sunken chest made her want to turn around and walk down the stairs and get in her truck and drive away, but she’d come all the way out here, and she would damn well get that hog, sick or mean as it might be. She made herself knock again. Anyway, it was stupid to think a dead man would be sitting at a table—surely, he was just a skinny old guy whose hearing was bad. After what seemed like a long time, a woman’s voice said, “Come in.”

Jill stepped inside the hot, dark kitchen, felt her work boots press grit into the plank floor, yanked her arm back just before it brushed against a big wood-burning cookstove. Not even a candle was lit to defend against oncoming darkness, though a three-gallon pot of water was steaming on the stove, adding humidity. A woman was standing at a big double sink, facing a boarded-up window with her back to Jill, washing dishes in slow motion. Jill approached her, also in slow motion—the woman had told Jill to come in, hadn’t she? Jill allowed her eyes to trace the skirt of the woman’s sagging house dress, down to the backs of her thin calves, one of which was marked with a dark vertical gash. The canvas shoes she wore had no laces and stretched to accommodate her swollen ankles. Jill felt an urge to tighten up her own boot lace, though it would’ve hurt.

As her eyes adjusted to the dim light, three more silent men materialized at the table, and finally a boy. The thick bodies, the big table, the chairs that didn’t fit under the table, the stove jutting out, it all made the room feel crowded, as though it would be difficult for her to just turn and run. Two of the men wore uniform shirts over their gray undershirts, and it was probably the dark that made all their bearded faces seem uniformly grimy. The boy was thin and shirtless in his overalls, maybe thirteen, with dark blond hair, stringy from sweat. His mouth hung open, and his panting made Jill think of the way her chickens sweated through their open mouths on the hottest days. The men all had a forward curve to their shoulders, with their forearms on the table as though they were defending bowls of food, only there were no bowls. The man across the table glanced up at her—his eyes settled on her breasts, and Jill raised her arm but dropped it before actually waving, and crossed her arms instead. Could this guy, with the huge fists and slick rubbery forehead, be Ernie’s old classmate, the kid without a sandwich? The old man with the sunken chest stared into the center of the table, at the empty cutting board and the plaid box of store-brand salt, and Jill wondered if these men were prepared to sit in silence all night until the sun came up. Sometimes Ernie fell asleep sitting in his kitchen chair, his arms folded on the table.

“I’m here about the boar hog. For twenty-five dollars,” Jill said. “If you still have it.” When she got no immediate response, she began to wonder if she was even in the right place. Maybe there were run-down farms like this at the end of every dirt road. “There was a card up at the grocery,” Jill said, trying to stay calm.

“Russell, go get the hog for this lady,” the woman said without turning. Her voice was slow, rusty, as though speaking was painful.

The boy walked around Jill and out the screen door, and its springing shut made almost no noise against the damp door frame. It had rained practically every day this August, an absurd amount of rain, overflowing ditches, causing Ernie’s field pond to swell onto manured land. (Strange to think it was her pond, too, her manured land.) As a result, the pond water was now polluted, and they had to water the cows in the barn, which made for a lot of extra work.

“Give me the money,” the woman said. She wiped her hands on her house dress and limped over to Jill.

Despite the swollen ankles and missing teeth, the woman appeared not much older than Jill, thirty-two maybe, or thirty-five; her hair was still a rich brown, but her face was rough, as though sunburned season after season. Jill always tried to remember to put on sunscreen, but rarely reapplied it after sweating it off. The woman held out her raw hand, and as Jill gave her the five and the twenty, she noted her own hand was torn up from scrubbing the cow barn’s concrete floors and walls to prepare for this morning’s inspection. Jill’s gloves had shredded against the concrete, and it would be weeks of medicated lotion before the skin healed. Without ever meeting Jill’s gaze, the woman limped back to the sink and resumed her slow motion dishwashing.

The woman spoke toward her dishes: “You’d better follow Russell out to the pen.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” Jill backed toward the door, imagining that one of the men might suddenly come to life, awaken from his stupor to reach out and clasp a hand around her leg or arm in a grip strong enough to keep her here. Maybe the woman doing dishes was their prisoner, forced to clean house and to have the men’s children, except that she seemed to be in charge. In any case, why weren’t there any other women here? Jill pushed on the screen door, noticed at eye level a tear in the screen had been repaired with black thread in a zigzag pattern. She and Ernie had repaired their screen with duct tape last week, and she had felt bad, thinking about how her father used to replace a porch screen when it had the tiniest hole. Her father couldn’t understand how Jill could choose a life where there was no time to relax and do things right. She had failed to convince him that the relaxing and the joy was in the hard work—something she believed most days. She descended the stairs, sinking into that broken step but not quite snapping the wood. The air outside should have felt free and clean, but the mood of that kitchen followed her out into the humid evening.

“Russell?” she said tentatively, then heard a clatter and a squeal from the direction of the barns.

She followed the trail, cut through burdock, ragweed, and pokeweed, felt the poisonous poke berries smash against her arms and face, to arrive at a pig pen built of old iron-and-wood cement forms wired together. As the pig shit smell hit her, she saw the dim outline of a skinny, dark hog, up to its belly in mud. She switched on her flashlight and found the batteries were dead. The swampy twelve-by-twelve-foot pen didn’t appear to have a weed or a scrap of food in it, nor a feed or water trough visible above the soupy muck. By leaning over the west side of the pen, Russell had somehow dragged the pig against the side, got a rope around its torso, behind its front legs. The hog had his nose sunk in the mud, and in the dark the hog’s visible eye looked as dull as the eyes of those men in the kitchen, whose presence she still felt like breath on her neck.

She moved around to the back of the hog and saw one testicle looked swollen. She absentmindedly aimed and clicked the switch on the dead flashlight. She leaned in close, studied the hind end of the hog as best she could in shadow; there appeared to be a dark gash on the swollen side. The pig’s front legs buckled, and he went to his knees. Mud splattered her chin and lips.

“What happened to his balls?” Jill took off her handkerchief and wiped her mouth.

“Uncle Roy tried to cut him.” The boy spoke in a nasal tone.

“Your uncle tried to castrate a full-grown hog?” Jill should have waited to pay until she’d seen what she was buying, confirmed that this creature was going to do the job. If her whole pig roast operation was going to depend on this dull-looking animal, maybe she should just say screw it now before wasting any more energy. All along, she and the neighbor had assumed they’d be able to borrow somebody’s boar hog for breeding, until they discovered that everybody local was out of the pig business, and they would have to artificially inseminate at thirty bucks a piece. She had been a fool to think the solution would be as cheap and simple as buying this hog. She could still drive away, she thought, forget that twenty-five dollars and let these people and their pig and their house continue to collapse. She could still pour her heart into corn and soybeans.

“Ma says you can’t eat boar meat,” the boy said. “It’ll kill you. Boar meat is poison.”

“He seems awful weak,” Jill said.

“We starved him, to make him weak for Uncle Roy to cut him. But he broke his rope, and Uncle Roy got bit, and he told Ma he won’t try again.”

“You’re sure he didn’t take off his testicles? Because I need him for breeding.”

“Ma says if he was castrated we could fatten him and eat him. They’re fighting about it all week.”

The pig needed only one good testicle to do the job, and Jill knew she was taking the damn pig no matter what the kid said. She supposed they didn’t use a veterinarian or anesthesia on the poor fellow. Worst case scenario, the infection would resist treatment, and she would shoot him and bury the carcass. This is part of what Ernie feared, no doubt, her wasting her money, their money. She tried not to resent the way even small amounts of money had to be such a big deal for them.

Early this year, Jill had sunk most of her grandmother’s inheritance into expanding and updating the small milking operation, and the rest of it into some experimental oil beans that were going to pay off big, and now she no longer had enough money to buy anything more than a candy bar on an impulse. Ernie had only reluctantly gone along with displacing a hundred acres of soy with Jill’s experimental beans that never sprouted because of a June freeze. When her parents sent her fifty bucks last week, she’d thought she’d use it to replace one of the milk-stall stanchions that was rusting through, but then the rumor started around that the dairy was going to stop buying milk from small producers in the coming year. Ernie had reluctantly gone along with her plans for expanding the milk barn and herd this spring. When their neighbor reported the rumor, that they would soon be out of the dairy business, Ernie nodded and kept nodding. When Jill finally looked him in the eye, she saw he felt sorry for her. She did not want to be an object of her husband’s pity.

Jill had no intention of eating this particular hog, but she had been doing a lot of reading on the subject of pork, and she thought this kid’s ma and a lot of people might be wrong about boar meat. Boar meat was usually fine, though the flavor might be slightly tainted in older boars, especially those with unhealthy diets, and some new-age farmers said the whole notion of boar taint was an old wives’ tale. Some who had experienced the tainted flavor, however, said it made them swear off pork forever.

“Can you help me get him in the trailer?” Jill asked. She held out a five-dollar bill.

The boy made an awful sound to clear his throat. She thought he was going to spit, but he swallowed and stared dully at the money. Jill wondered if she ought to check with the authorities, make sure the kid was going to school—her sister the social worker sure would. Reporting folks to the authorities was frowned upon in these parts, however, by Ernie as much as anybody. “It’s awful easy to make trouble for people,” Ernie had said. Jill wondered how long people could survive being this poor, how many generations.

She leaned close to the boy, pushed the five-dollar bill into his front overall pocket, saw how his tanned skin was streaked with dirt and sweat. He looked up open-mouthed, stared at her as if waiting for directions.

“Go on, get him out,” she said finally. “I’ll get the trailer up here.”
The boy untwisted some wire and wiggled loose one of the heavy iron forms, showing he was stronger than he looked. Jill returned to her truck and backed the trailer, relying on the back-up lights to get her as close as she dared without taking a chance on running over something that would flatten her tires.

It took them a while to maneuver the slow, muddy hog down the path and into the trailer in the dark, mostly pushing from behind, picking him up when he fell, feeling hip bones and ribs through rough skin, avoiding the swollen testicle. Both the boy and the hog stepped on Jill’s bruised foot, and when they got the hog up the ramp in the dark, he fell over onto his side and was finally unable to get up. The two had to use all their strength to push him in the last few inches to close up the gate.

“Don’t you have any sisters?” Jill asked. The boy shrugged, or maybe he didn’t respond at all. He was already walking away toward the house, disappearing into the weeds.

Once she got her wheels back in the two-track wheel ruts, she was on automatic pilot. Neither speeding up nor slowing down diminished the violent bouncing of the stock trailer, and Jill supposed it didn’t matter if her eyes blurred. Though her mud-crusted hands smelled of pig shit, she picked up the chocolate bar from the seat beside her. She had meant to open that candy when she was clean and fed; she had meant to unfold the wrapper and foil carefully, to break off just one piece. She was going to tuck it away in her dresser drawer each night, re-folding the glossy paper and gold foil carefully into its original position to retain the shape until the bar was gone. Instead, she tore away the wrapper and foil with her fingers and teeth, undressed the top of the chocolate bar, spit out bits of foil. She bit into the heat-softened chocolate and chewed and swallowed wildly. The luxury of it made her feel drunk. She tore away the rest of the wrapper and devoured the whole damned thing. Despite the pig stink, it tasted better than anything she had eaten lately, and it was gone way too soon. The memory of that taste then became an ache in her chest like heartache.

When it began to rain, as it was apparently going to do every day for the rest of her life, Jill rolled up her window, trapped herself inside the cab with mosquitoes that buzzed around her face and ears. The hog was still flat on its side in the trailer, its head and limbs bouncing like meat—it hadn’t moved since its collapse. Her family was right: just because she’d studied agriculture for six years didn’t mean she knew a damned thing about farming. All she’d ever wanted from the time she was a kid was to work with land and animals, to work beside a good man, but there was so much more to it. Her father had said that her marrying Ernie was proof positive she didn’t know a damned thing about real life. Her father couldn’t understand how Ernie’s calmness might be the antidote for everything uneasy about her; he didn’t see how the contours of the farm matched precisely the contours of her mind. Her father might even enjoy leaning back in his office chair about now and telling her she’d just wasted twenty-five, no thirty, dollars and a quarter tank of gas. Until Jill had seen the Jentzen woman, she hadn’t understood what her family feared for her. She’d known that like all the farmers in this downward spiral, she and Ernie could lose everything, but she’d hoped her ideas for extra income could postpone the end indefinitely. Maybe she was, instead, hurrying the end along.

As she pulled into Ernie’s driveway, their driveway, she crumpled the chocolate bar wrapper so it would be unidentifiable as something fancy, except that no matter how small she crushed it, the foil glistened in the moonlight coming through the windshield. She finally shoved it into her pants pocket, though the effort caused her to swerve. When she turned off the engine, the boar was silent and still as a pork roast, beaten by the trailer’s bouncing and by the hard rain, which had started and stopped twice. At least the corpse would be clean.

Ernie was sitting at the porch picnic table with the Coleman lantern, moths fluttering and crashing against the glass. He and the neighbor were sorting through a box of old leather harness parts she’d dragged down the stairs yesterday. Atop the table sat the neighbor’s acne-studded son. All three kept looking at her and the trailer. The boy, sixteen this summer, was dressed in jeans and a rock-and-roll T-shirt; he was a helpful kid, though when Ernie wasn’t there he sometimes sighed at her and stood too close. Between taking sips of beer from the bottle in his left hand, the boy was swatting mosquitoes with the right. Ernie looked at her expectantly, but she didn’t want to get out of the truck. There was no point in getting out and showing Ernie a dead pig—he knew, had known all along, what folly this was.

“So how’s your hog?” Ernie said. She was surprised she heard his voice from the porch so clearly, as though he were sitting in the truck beside her. He sounded almost enthusiastic.

“Them Jentzens still living on woodchuck meat and dandy-lion greens?” the neighbor shouted good-humoredly. The neighbor had lost about everything except his house and garage over the last few years. His farm, once bigger than Ernie’s (though not as beautiful, with fewer stands of trees and no watering pond with turtles, no stream to rinse your face in, few blackcap raspberries), had been parceled up and sold by the bank to a larger corporate farm. He now drove forty minutes each way to work at the new Tractor Supply store off the highway. But he had gotten the runt gilts as piglets for free somewhere, and he could butcher a pig like nobody’s business, she knew, and he still had a stainless steel pig smoker, presentable enough for any sort of graduation or anniversary party.

“The hog’s dead,” Jill said, more harshly than she’d intended. Ernie nodded. The neighbor nodded, took a drink of beer. The son glanced at his father, took a drink of his own beer. Jill was grateful her sister the social worker wasn’t here to see this.

Ernie approached, carrying the Coleman lantern, squatted down and took a close look at the inert hog. After a minute or so, he came up and stood beside the driver’s door.

“Looks like he’s been shot,” Ernie said.

“Shot?” Jill said. “He was starved and got an infection. I was too late—” She had almost added, to save him.

“Looks like there’s two bullet wounds in his chest, almost healed over.” Ernie didn’t swat at the mosquitoes but let them draw out what blood they would from his exposed face and neck and arms. He lifted Jill’s hand off the edge of the window to hold it, and that sent energy through her arm, down into her belly and her legs—only she didn’t want to desire him now. She wanted to unhook the trailer, pull out of this driveway, and head south until she was far enough away that she could look back and see it all in miniature, see all her farm schemes as comic failures. She would take a deep breath out there, and ask herself if she belonged here at all—maybe her whole time here was nothing more than a crazy adventure.

“Jentzens got a good crop of pokeweed this year?” Ernie asked, and jiggled her hand. Jill glanced in the side-view mirror to see her face was smeared with purple. She felt him staring at her with the same fierce admiration he showed when she lifted the other end of something heavy or dressed a wound on a heifer or produced some compelling information about soy yields. But did he see her as farmer? she wondered. What would her father say if he were here? Would he make clever remarks about failing farms and inbred families at the ends of dirt roads where everybody had six fingers on each hand? She pulled her hand out of Ernie’s to swipe at a mosquito on her forearm and smeared the blood across her skin. She wiped her forehead and cheeks to get rid of any mosquitoes she might not be feeling, and she smelled the pig shit on her hands.

Ernie moved back to the trailer and squatted down to study the pig. He held his lantern near the animal’s face and spoke, or at least his mouth was moving as he reached through the slats and felt the pig’s neck and chest.

Jill couldn’t be sure from his reflection in the side-view mirror, but he seemed to be talking to the hog. She couldn’t bring herself to turn around and face him but sat listening, resenting the scuffing and murmuring of the neighbor and his son on the porch. She adjusted the mirror for a better view. Ernie had a way of doing things, and he made hooking up a cow to a milking machine or rebuilding a tractor carburetor seem as natural as water flowing downhill.

There was a snort and a scraping sound. In the mirror, she saw the dark hog thrusting up its shoulders then dragging itself onto its knees, back legs, and finally its quivering front legs.

“Holy mother fucker,” Jill shouted, and stretched halfway out the truck window to see. Ernie laughed. For some reason Ernie found it hilarious whenever Jill swore, as she sometimes did in bed. Once upright, the pig snorked a complaint, supported itself by leaning against the side of the trailer, and jammed its fist-sized snout between two boards.

The neighbor raised his beer bottle, shouted, “Lazarus arises!” and stepped off the porch. The son raised his beer alongside. Jill slid out of the truck, left the door hanging open, but at her approach, her husband stood and stopped what he’d been doing.

“Were you saying something to him?” Jill asked.

“Nothing much.” Ernie shrugged.

“He’s one ugly son of a bitch,” the neighbor said, sidling up to Jill. The son approached and stood right behind her. She felt him looming—how tall was that kid going to get?

She had assumed the hog was black, but the rain had rinsed away the mud. In the lantern light he looked the color of dried blood, deeper toned even than her Duroc gilts. His shoulders and head were bristled like a wild hog, and pointed tusks stuck out from his lower jaw. How could she not have noticed those tusks back at the Jentzen farm?

The neighbor laughed and said, “You’d better tell our sweet girl piggies to hold onto their piggy panties.”

The men and the boy couldn’t stop staring at the hog, and the four bodies boxed Jill in, put her a little closer to all of them than she wanted to be. Her foot was throbbing now.

The pig had been lifeless at that farm, lifeless in that trailer. Was the smell of those gilts in the barn so strong as to drag him back from the dead?

“Maybe this is something that got mixed up with one of those wild hogs they got down south in the state,” Ernie said. “Or maybe he got loose from the state fair—they got those big show pigs.”

Jill didn’t know how the pig had looked so much less formidable back in its mud pen; she’d had her hands all over this pig, pushing it into the trailer, and it had seemed smaller.

“No telling how the Jentzens ended up with this thing,” the neighbor said. “Probably they just caught it up and put it in an old pen. Remember, they used to have pigs when we was kids.”

“Some kid out shooting squirrels might’ve taken pot shots at it,” Ernie said. “Look at his skin here, feel here, underneath, you can feel a twenty-two bullet. Right there. ” Ernie lifted the lantern.

“I’ll be damned,” said the neighbor, feeling the hog’s chest. “Is that another one in his leg?”

“Doesn’t look like he’s been fed in a while, though,” Ernie said. “We’d better get some corn in him.”

“Hey, one of his nuts is swelled up,” the boy said. “That’s one dang big nut.”

“It’s infected,” Jill said. The pig was standing still for the men’s handling, not biting, not fussing. “We’ll get him on antibiotics.”

“That’s a big old nut, all right,” the neighbor said. “Bigger’n a baseball.”

“Can we cut the tusks off?” Jill asked.

“Not sure how you go about cutting tusks off a full-grown fellow like him. There’d probably be a lot of blood.” The neighbor was close enough that Jill smelled his beer breath, stronger than the pig scent. She smelled the boy, too, his sharp sweat. She reached for her husband’s hand but brushed her knuckles against the hot lantern glass instead and recoiled. She had asked the Jentzen boy about sisters. What about aunts? A grandmother? She should have demanded an answer. Why had there been no other women at that farm? And, more important, why had the one woman stayed?

Jill stepped back, moved away from the men, inhaled the clean, damp air and released her shoulders. She had built the new hog pen to the neighbor’s specifications, posts driven down four feet, woven wire buried under ground to prevent digging, sides six feet high, double thickness of two-by-fours, screwed rather than nailed. One corner had a shelter from weather, another corner had a squeeze pen, where she could trap and medicate animals. She had medicines and ointments, and she would suckle this weak monster back to strength in time for the gilts to become fertile at about 220 days. With six breeding females, each birthing ten piglets per litter, two litters a year, and with these men to help her, this was once again looking very promising. This boar was exactly what she needed—a creature even bullets could not stop.

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