Chapter One: Harlan
May 10, 2025
The same moment the hiker comes upon them, rounding the bend in the trail, Harlan knows the man must die.
He takes no pleasure in the thought. So far as Harlan is aware, he has never met the man and has no quarrel with him. This stranger is simply an unexpected contingency, a loose thread that now requires snipping.
Harlan knows, too, that it’s his own fault. He shouldn’t have stopped. He should have pressed the group forward, off the trail and into the concealing drapery of the forest. That, after all, is the plan they’ve followed every time: Keep moving. Disappear.
But the first sliver of morning light crested the ridge and caught Harlan’s eye just so, and without even knowing he was doing it, he paused to watch it filter through the high trees. Giddy with promise, he imagined that he saw their new future dawning in the distance, tethered to the rising sun. Cardinals he couldn’t yet spot were waking to greet the day, and a breeze picked up overhead, soughing through shadowy crowns of birch and oak. He turned and watched the silhouettes of his companions taking shape: his sons, Otto and Joseph, standing beside him, and the friend he calls Choctaw lingering just behind.
The stranger’s headlamp slices through this reverie, bright and sudden as an oncoming train. The sight freezes Harlan where he stands. In all the times they’ve previously made this journey—always departing from the trail at this spot, and always at this early hour—they’ve never encountered another person. Given last night’s thunderstorm and the threat of more to come, Harlan wasn’t planning on company this morning either.
He clamps his lips tight and flicks his eyes toward his sons—Be still, be quiet. Behind him Choctaw clears his throat quietly.
“Mornin’,” the stranger says when he’s close.
The accent is local—born, like Harlan’s own, of the surrounding North Carolina mountains—and his tone carries a hint of polite confusion. The beam of his headlamp darts from man to man, as though uncertain of who most merits its attention, before settling finally on Choctaw’s pack.
This backpack is a hand-stitched canvas behemoth many times the size of those sold by local outfitters and online retailers. Harlan designed the mammoth pack himself, to accommodate the many necessities of life in the wilderness. Dry goods. Seeds for planting. Tools for construction and farming. Long guns and ammunition. It’s functional but unsightly, like the bulbous shell of some strange, bipedal insect. Harlan and his sons carry similar packs, each man bearing as much weight as he can manage. But it’s the rifle barrel peeking out of Choctaw’s that has now caught the stranger’s interest.
Harlan can tell he’s an experienced hiker, familiar with the national park where they now stand. Few people know of this trail. Fewer still would attempt it at this hour. In each thick-knuckled hand he holds a trekking pole, and he moves with a sure and graceful gait even in the relative dark. He will recognize—probably is just now in the process of recognizing—that something is not right with the four of them. Something he might be tempted to report. Something he might recall later if asked.
Harlan nods at the man but says nothing. He removes his pack and kneels as though to re-tie his laces.
The hiker, receiving no reply, fills the silence. “How’re y’all do—”
When Harlan stands again he works quickly, covering the stranger’s mouth with his free hand and thrusting his blade in just below the sternum. A whimper escapes through his clamped fingers but dies quickly. The body arches, then goes limp. One arm reaches toward him but only brushes his shoulder before falling away. Choctaw approaches from behind and lowers the man onto his back.
Even the birds are now silent.
Joseph steps to his father’s side and offers him a cloth. Harlan takes it, wipes his hands, and smiles. His youngest son is a carbon copy of himself at seventeen. The wordless, intent glares. The muscles tensed and explosive, like coiled springs straining at a latch. Joseph eyes the man on the ground as though daring him to rise and fight.
Harlan removes the stranger’s headlamp and shines the beam in the man’s face. A buzz-cut of silver hair blanches in this wash of light. His pupils, wide as coins, do not react. Blood paints his lips and pools on the mud beneath him, smelling of copper.
“I’m sorry, friend,” Harlan says, though he doubts the man can hear him. “It’s just that you weren’t supposed to be here.” He yanks the knife free from the man’s distended belly and cleans it with the cloth.
From behind him comes Otto’s fretful voice. “Jesus, Pop.”
Harlan’s eldest more closely resembles the men on his late wife’s side. Long-limbed and dour. Quiet and amenable, but anxious. When Harlan turns, Otto is pacing back and forth with his hands clamped to the sides of his head. His natural state.
“Shut up and help me,” Harlan growls. “Both of you.”
He instructs his sons to carry the man two hundred paces into the woods and deposit him behind a tree. Far enough away, Harlan hopes, that the body will not be seen or smelled from the trail any time soon. “Wear your gloves,” he tells them, re-sheathing the knife at his hip. “And don’t let him drag.”
As Otto and Joseph bear the man away, Harlan pockets the lamp and turns to Choctaw. “I know,” he says, shaking his head. “I know. Don’t look at me like that.” He sweeps his boot back and forth along the muddy trail, to smooth over the odd bunching of footprints and to cover the scrim of blood with earth.
Choctaw points and says, “Dibs on his walking sticks.”
Harlan stops sweeping. “What?”
“Sometimes my knees hurt.”
“Fine,” Harlan says. “But let’s get this straight. Dibs is not how we’re going to operate when we get there.”
Choctaw blinks and looks at him. “Dibs is how everything operates.”
Minutes later, Otto and Joseph return from their task, their chests heaving and their faces now slick.
Otto gives his younger brother a wary look, then approaches Harlan alone. When he speaks, he keeps his voice low. “Pop—”
“Was he still breathing when you left him?”
Otto trains his eyes on his feet, a drop of sweat dangling from his nose.
Otto shakes his head. He hesitates a moment longer, then asks, “Maybe we should go, Pop? Before someone else comes along?”
Harlan pats his son’s neck. “You’re right, of course.”
The four grunt and sway as they re-shoulder their packs. Wooden edges and sharp points dig into Harlan’s back and buttocks through the canvas, and the straps strain against his burning shoulders. But he welcomes this discomfort for what it means: this, at last, is their final trip. This time, they’re leaving for good.
They fan out along the edge of the trail, the ground sopping under their boots. Droplets rain down, shaken free from the canopy by a gust of wind, and Harlan turns his face up to feel the cool prickle on his skin. Then he nods to his companions, wipes the water from his eyes, and steps into the rustling thicket.
The others follow him, marching as quickly as their burdens allow, melting into the trees and the undergrowth.
Chapter Two: Tsula
Once the Earth was nothing but shapeless mud floating on the surface of the water. The Animals lived in the Sky Realm then, but they had become too plentiful and overcrowded. So they sent the Great Buzzard down to the Earth to dry the mud with his wings. The journey made him tired, and he could find no place to rest on the soft mud. His weary wings dipped low, carving mountains and valleys into the pliant ground. Thus the Animals gave shape to the ancestral Cherokee lands.
Tsula Walker learned this tale as a child growing up in the Qualla Boundary. Of all the traditional stories her grandparents taught her, it has always been her favorite. It’s untrue in the literal sense, of course. The Appalachian Mountains were not carved; they were bulldozed skyward when Pangaea collided with the North American tectonic plate. But both accounts feature an element of the incredible, and who can say, really, which seems less likely: a giant bird sculpting geological features, or supercontinents drifting aimlessly across whole oceans?
Though Tsula has lived nearly all of her adult life on the other side of the United States, still the story of the Buzzard and his weary wings lingers with her. In those intervening decades, she has seen the flat expanse of eastern Montana, the white dunes of the New Mexico desert, and the salt plains of Oklahoma. She has developed a habit, when presented with some new or surprising geography, of asking herself when in the Buzzard’s flight he would have passed over that place, and how he could have contributed to its features.
Standing now on an unpaved service road in the pine rocklands of Everglades National Park, swatting at mosquitoes in late October and sweating while standing still, she entertains these questions again. Perhaps Florida came early in the journey, before the great bird’s energy was spent and his wings slumped too low. This would explain the flat, undisturbed stretches of land, like the one laid out before her now, but not the swamps that skirt them or the marsh that weaves among them.
So Florida must have come last. If he was tired over Cherokee country, he’d surely have grown desperately weak by the time he made it another six or seven hundred miles to the south. She imagines the poor bird drifting lower and lower, wings now gliding outstretched and sapped of all energy for flapping, cleaving the mud low and plumb-line straight. She envisions him, in the end, succumbing to the pull of gravity and dredging the wetlands with his surrendering heft.
Two vehicles approach along the service road, a thin cloud of gray Florida dust swirling behind them. Tsula raises her binoculars. A generic SUV, much like her own, leads the way. A Park Service law enforcement cruiser follows close behind. She looks at her watch: 11:45 a.m.
Tsula flaps the front of her vented fishing shirt to move air against her skin. The material is thin, breathable, but still it manages to trap this oppressive heat. Islets of brown bead the tan shirt where it clings to the sweat on her shoulders and chest. She removes her baseball cap, fans her face, and lifts her ponytail off her neck. In this sun, her black hair absorbs the heat like the hood of a car, and she wouldn’t be at all surprised to find it has burned her skin. For a moment, she wishes it would go ahead and gray. Long ago she abandoned any inclination toward vanity, and surely gray would be more comfortable in this heat.
The vehicles pull to a stop next to her, and two men emerge. Matt Healey of the Fish and Wildlife Commission approaches her first. He is fifty-something, with the tanned and craggy face of someone who has spent decades outside. Tsula shakes his hand and smiles. “Special Agent,” he says, scratching at his graying beard with his free hand.
The other man is younger—in his late twenties, Tsula figures—and dressed in the standard green-and-gray uniform of a law enforcement park ranger. He moves with a bounding and confident gait and thrusts out his hand. “Special Agent, I’m Ranger Tim Stubbs. I was asked to join y’all today, but I’m afraid they didn’t give me much info. Can someone tell me what I’m in for?”
“Poachers,” Healey answers. “You’re here to help us nab some.”
“But we investigate poaching every year,” Stubbs says, turning toward Tsula. “We never get the involvement of the FBI.”
“ISB,” she corrects him. “Investigative Services Branch. I’m with the Park Service.”
“Never heard of it,” Stubbs says.
“I get that a lot.”
Whether he knows it or not, Stubbs has a point. The ISB rarely, if ever, involves itself in garden-variety poaching cases. Most large parks like Everglades have their own law enforcement rangers capable of looking into them. Federal and state fish and wildlife agencies can augment those efforts when necessary. At just over thirty Special Agents nationwide, with eighty-five million acres of national park land under their jurisdiction from Hawaii to the U.S. Virgin Islands, the ISB is too thinly staffed to look into such matters when there are suspicious deaths, missing persons, and sexual assaults to investigate.
But this case is different.
“It’s not just what they’re taking,” Healey explains, “it’s how much they’re taking. Thousands of green and loggerhead turtle eggs, gone. Whole nests cleaned out at different points along Cape Sable all summer long. Always at night, so cameras don’t capture them clearly, and always in different locations. They’re a moving target.”
“We’ve been concerned for a while now that they may be getting some assistance in spotting the nests from inside the Park Service,” Tsula adds. “So we’re keeping it close to the vest. That’s why no one spoke with you about the assignment before now. We don’t want to risk any tip-offs.”
“What would anyone want with that many eggs?” Stubbs asks.
“Black market,” Healey says.
Healey shakes his head. “Sea-turtle eggs go down to Central America, where they’re eaten as an aphrodisiac. Fetch three to five bucks apiece for the guy stateside who collects them. Bear paws and gallbladders go over to Asia. There’s all kinds of other weird shit I won’t mention. And, of course, there are the live exotics coming into the country. Billions of dollars a year in the illegal animal trade, going on all over the world. It’s one of the biggest criminal industries besides drugs, weapons, and human trafficking. This many eggs missing—it’s like bricks of weed or cocaine in a wheel-well. This isn’t some guy adding to his reptile collection or teenagers stealing eggs on a dare. This is commerce.”
Tsula recognizes the speech. It’s how Healey hooked her, and how she in turn argued her boss into sanctioning her involvement. “Sure, most poaching is small potatoes,” Healey told her months ago. “Hicks shooting a deer off-season on government land and similar nonsense. This isn’t that. You catch the right guys, they’ll tell you who they’re selling to, and maybe you can follow the trail. Can you imagine taking down an international protected-species enterprise? What would that do for the ISB’s profile? What would that do for your career?”
“So maybe that’s what’s in it for me,” Tsula said. “Why are you so fired up?”
“Well, these species are having a hard enough time as it is. Throw sustained poaching on top of that, and it’s going to be devastating. I want it stopped. Not just the low-level guys either. We put a few of them in jail, there’ll always be more to take their place. I want the head lopped off.”
Tsula felt a thrill at Healey’s blunt passion, and at the prospect of an operation with international criminal implications. Certainly it would be a welcome break from the molestation and homicide cases that were eating up her days and her soul, bit by bit. It took three conversations with the ISB Atlantic Region’s Assistant Special Agent in Charge, but eventually he agreed. “This better be worth it,” he told her finally. “Bring some people in, and get them to tell us who they’re working for. We may have to let the FBI in after that, but you will have tipped the first domino.”
Their investigation consumed hundreds of man-hours across three agencies but yielded little concrete progress for the first several months. Then, a couple weeks ago, Healey received a call from the Broward County State Attorney’s office. A pet-store owner under arrest for a third cocaine-possession charge was offering information on turtle-egg poachers targeting Everglades, in a bid for a favorable plea deal. Two men had recently approached the store owner, Bucky, about purchasing a small cache of eggs they still had on hand. It was toward the end of the season, and the recent yields were much smaller than their mid-summer hauls. Since many of the eggs they’d gathered were approaching the time to hatch, their usual buyers were no longer interested. The two men were looking for a legally flexible pet-store owner who might want to sell hatchlings out the back door of his shop.
Tsula decided to use Bucky as bait. At her direction, he would offer to purchase the remaining eggs but refuse to conduct the sale at his store. The strip mall along the highway, he would explain, was too heavily trafficked for questionable transactions, but he knew a quiet place on the periphery of the Park, in the pine rocklands just outside the Miami–Fort Lauderdale sprawl, where he liked to snort up and make plans for his business. They could meet there.
“Do I really have to say the part about snorting up?” Bucky asked, scratching his fingernails nervously on the interrogation room’s table. “I really don’t want that on tape. My parents are still alive.”
“You think they don’t know already?” Tsula said. “Way I hear it, everyone knows. That detail sells the story. You don’t like my plan, good luck with your charges and your Public Defender. How much time do you figure a third offense gets you?”
At his lawyer’s urging, Bucky finally agreed. The plan was set in motion, with the operation to take place today.
“So how are we looking?” Healey asks.
“Bucky’s on his way,” Tsula replies. “I met with him earlier for a final run-through, got him mic’d up. We’re going to move the vehicles over behind that thicket and wait. I’ve scouted it out, we’ll be concealed from the road. The purchase will take place about 12:30. As soon as Bucky has the eggs, we make our move.”
“I’ll secure the eggs,” Healey says. “You guys reel in some assholes.”
Tsula looks at Stubbs. His jaw is clenched, his eyes suddenly electric. “I’ll ride with you when it’s time, if that’s all right,” she says. “Keep it simple.”
They move their vehicles behind the wall of climbing ferns and ladies’ tresses. Tsula gets out of her SUV, finds a concealed vantage point behind the brush, and raises her binoculars. A breeze has picked up and is swaying the distant sawgrass. A golden eagle circles effortlessly on a thermal, its attention trained on something below. Directly beyond the thicket where she stands, an expanse of grass spreads out for a quarter-mile before giving way to a dense stand of pine trees. To her right, that same open field stretches perhaps two miles, bordered by the service road on which Healey and Stubbs came in. All is silent but the soft hum of the breeze.
Bucky’s rust-colored compact bounces up the road around 12:15 and disappears beyond the thicket. Minutes later, a mud-flecked pickup on oversized tires proceeds in the same direction, dragging a gray plume like a thundercloud behind it.
Tsula turns, nods to Healey, and climbs quietly into Stubbs’s cruiser. She inserts her earpiece and settles into the seat. Stubbs looks at her expectantly, his hand hovering over the ignition.
Tsula shakes her head. “Not yet.” She listens quietly, head hunched, and then: “Go.”
The cruiser cranks and shoots around the brush, lights and sirens blaring, Healey’s SUV close behind.
Bucky steps out of his vehicle, hands held high, and kneels on the ground. But no sooner has Stubbs pulled to a stop and opened his door than the truck throttles loudly, fish-tails to the right, and tears off into the grassy expanse. Before Tsula can speak, Stubbs slams his door and launches the cruiser down the service road. He’s nearly standing on the gas pedal, staring at the truck as it devours the length of the field.
“What are you doing?” Tsula shouts over the engine’s growl, gripping the ceiling handle.
“You want these pricks, don’t you?”
The truck’s diesel roar is deafening even at this distance. Its tires, large and deep-treaded, claw the ground and leave a wake of sand and saw-palmetto leaves. Black smoke billows from twin stacks at the rear of the cab. At this pace, Tsula believes the truck will reach the far end of the expanse and the road beyond it before Stubbs can cut it off. They’ll be on public streets outside the Park before they know it.
Tsula wants to tell Stubbs to slow down, so that they can radio ahead for assistance. They have enough information already to catch up with the poachers. But just then the truck’s front end dips into a long depression in the grass and shoots out the other side. The rear end follows, but soon the truck is seesawing on its oversized shocks. It yaws to the left, overcorrects in the other direction, and enters a furious roll.
Something launches from the spinning vehicle’s window and arcs through the air, like a flare fired from a foundering ship. A body, Tsula realizes as the object descends—arms flailing as though to reach for something solid, legs bicycling in panic. It disappears into the grass.
“Holy shit.” Stubbs brings the cruiser to an abrupt, sliding halt.
After several revolutions, the truck comes to rest on its side in a haze of dust and smoke, one front tire still spinning ineffectually in the air. A second occupant pokes his head out of the now glassless passenger window. He hoists his body up and drops to the ground. Steam from the cracked radiator briefly obscures Tsula’s view of the man. Then he emerges, running in a wavering line toward the copse of pines, looking back over his shoulder at them.
Stubbs steers the cruiser into the field and pulls to a stop again a short distance from the wreck.
“You track the runner,” Tsula says.
Stubbs nods and gets out while Tsula springs from the cruiser in the direction of the body that took flight.
What she finds is less a human form than a crumple of its constituent parts—all purpling skin and unnatural angles from which she can detect no breath. She places two fingers over the carotid. Nothing.
“Shit,” she mutters. This was supposed to be simple. Clean.
She lifts her radio to request medical assistance from dispatch, whatever good that will do, but stops cold on hearing a pistol shot in the distance. She looks up, scanning the breadth of the field.
The trees. She takes off running.
Choose any place on the globe—any spot on a map—and ask yourself: What people have called that land home over its history, and are they still there? If they’re gone, by what means were they removed, and under what authority? What wrongs were committed on that land that still linger in the air and the soil? Here in the United States, most regions have a long and troubling history of dispossession—a procession of those who have lost the land and those who have claimed it, often by force. Take, for example, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a half-million acres of stunning wilderness protected and held in trust for the public. Two centuries ago, that same land was the setting for one of our country’s most shameful acts: the violent removal of the Cherokee from their ancestral homeland. This horrific act paved the way for thousands of settlers, farmers, and clear-cutting timber companies to claim the land as their own. Then they too were dispossessed when the U.S. government established the Park in the early 20th century.
Harlan Miles grew up hearing the story of the homestead his family lost to the formation of the Park in the 1930s. It is, to Harlan, an unconscionable theft. After years of preparation, he leads a group of four, including his own two sons, deep into the Park’s western mountains. His mission: to claim and restore the birthright that was denied him and to oppose any who would seek to take it back.
Some months later, wildlife biologist Alex Lowe is found face-down in Twentymile Creek, dead from what appears to be a self-inflicted gunshot. But Tsula Walker, Special Agent with the National Park Service’s Investigative Services Branch, isn’t so sure. The deeper she digs, the more she comes to question that easy conclusion.
The rest of Tsula’s life is no simpler. Her wildlife-poaching sting inside Everglades National Park has gone sideways. Her mother has cancer and is refusing further treatment. And a local politician is trying to drag her into a land dispute between the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to which she belongs and the Park Service that pays her salary.
Tsula’s investigation into Alex’s death will lead her deep into the Park, on a collision course with Harlan and his companions. Their encounter will leave her fighting for survival, not only from men who would do her harm but from a looming winter storm that could prove just as deadly.
Twentymile is a story of crime and survival, but also a study of the characters and the landscape at its heart. Told from several interwoven perspectives, the novel explores how these lives arrive at this catastrophic intersection and contemplates the many meanings that can attach to the same plot of earth—ancestral home, land of opportunity, or crown jewel of the national public lands experiment.
C. Matthew Smith is an attorney practicing in Atlanta, Georgia. He holds a degree in English from Davidson College and a Law degree from the University of Georgia. His short fiction has appeared online in Mystery Tribune and is forthcoming in Mystery Weekly and the anthology Mickey Finn: 21st-Century Noir, vol. 3 (Down & Out Books). Twentymile, his first novel, is forthcoming from Latah Books.
Embark, Issue 14, April 2021