Wild Raspberries TOP SHELF An imprint of Torquere Press Publishers Copyright 2008 by Jane Davitt Chapter One T he woods were a wild green maze around him, and Dan was lost, panic long since muted to a dull despair. He was hungry, too, hungrier than he’d ever been, including that time he’d gone fishing for the day with Billy, setting out before dawn without breakfast. Their food had fallen in the first stream they’d crossed and been ruined. They’d kept going; they’d eat fish for lunch, wouldn’t they? Sure, they would! They’d crawled home, endless hours later, their bellies empty and aching, filled with nothing more than gulps of teeth-numbingly cold water, and Dan’s father had taken one look at him, swept his hand around in a blow Dan had been too exhausted to dodge, and sent him to bed hungry for coming back too late to help with the chores. Waking the next day, he’d been dizzy and sick, his hearing fading in and out, until breakfast had put the heart back into him. This was worse. He’d eaten the day before -- ham and eggs and toast, with the trucker who’d given him a ride, smiling benevolently at him as he beckoned the waitress over to refill their coffee cups. And he lost every bite and swallow an hour later, throwing up on the side of the road, while the dust from the truck’s wheels scoured his eyes as it drove away. He was glad of it, too; he’d thrown up more than the food. The rank, bitter taste of the trucker’s come had lingered in his mouth even after he puked, though that might have been his mind playing tricks on him. The woods had called to him then, safe and tempting because they were familiar. He marked the way the sun was headed to find north and left the highway .
behind him. These weren’t the woods he knew, though -- small, contained, bordered by farms where a knock on the door would bring a woman, smiling tiredly, to muss his hair (they all did that since his mom died) and hand him a chewy, raisin-studded cookie and some cool, fresh milk. No, these woods were vast, limitless, and empty. They were trees and earth and a soft, sighing wind that made branches creak oddly and the summer leaves whisper. He found himself staring out across a valley of nothing but more trees, higher up than he’d realized, with the sun unhelpfully directly overhead, and he came close to crying. Too old to cry, though. Shit, only babies did that, and he wasn’t a baby. Babies didn’t get pushed to their knees, their mouths split open and filled with -- He turned his head and spat, his belly restless again. God, had that man ever even heard of soap and water? He walked until it got dark, slept huddled in his thin jacket close to a small stream the summer heat had shrunk to a trickle, and now it was morning again, and he was walking because it was better than lying down to die. His feet hurt. The boots he’d decided to wear when he left had been new and stiff, and his toes and heels were bumped and rubbed. He’d taken them off the night before and had plunged his feet into the stream to cool them off. The scream he’d given as raw, blistered skin met water had echoed among the rocks on the banks like a bowling ball striking the pins. And then the silence settled back around him, a thick, green blanket of it, warning him to be quiet, so he’d all but tiptoed back to the patch of ground he’d cleared of stones and twigs. It had seemed so simple. Head north to Canada, walking or hitching rides. Wasn’t far; he’d estimated a week would do it, if he could get picked up by someone at least once a day. He’d felt proud of himself for being realistic and having enough food money to last two weeks, not one. He still had a few dollars left; he’d lined his boots with some of his savings, as a precaution, and the trucker hadn’t found that with his large, inquisitive, impersonal hands. The dollar bills, sweat-soaked and crumpled, were in his pocket now, and much good they were out here under the trees. He found himself walking easier and frowned, jolted out of his absorption with the hollowness of his belly and the red agony of each footstep. He’d been walking with stones shifting under his feet and brambles catching at his ankles; now he was on a .
narrow path, without being sure how he’d gotten there. He turned and looked back, but the woods had closed behind him and were pushing him on. The path was no wider than a man’s shoulders, a meandering series of bends with short stretches where it ran straight, but it was definitely used; he could see a heel print in what had once been a patch of mud, the shallow depression baked solid. Maybe he was in a National Park? He didn’t remember seeing one marked on the map, and there were no trail markers on the tree trunks, but it could be. They’d have places for the tourists -- washrooms, people, food . He felt a faint stirring of hope, and it let him stumble along just a little farther. He rounded a corner and the path ended in a clearing. He moaned; he couldn’t help it. Raspberry bushes, the bright, acid green of the leaves stirred by the breeze to reveal the fruit. He walked forward and snatched at the nearest dangle of berries, heedless of the sharp prickles guarding them. That didn’t really work too well; the ripe berries tumbled, lost among the canes, so he forced himself to pick them, one by one, with a hand that shook as it worked. He picked four or five, filling his cupped hand with the light, sweet fruit, and then opened his mouth and crammed them in. The sun-warmed flesh split against his teeth, and juice and seeds spurted out over his tongue. Oh, God, so good, so good. Ravenous now, swallowing saliva from his watering mouth to make room for more raspberries, he picked and ate until his fingertips were stained red and full of tiny thorns, hair-thin and itchy. He moved deeper into the canes and reached out eagerly for another berry, almost out of reach inside the clustered brambles. His fingers brushed something -- string -- and he paused, his hunger still acute enough to have blunted his thought, so that reasoning flowed sluggishly, like a silt-choked river. String? Why would there be --? The quiet, chilling sound of a rifle bolt sliding home froze him in place, as terrified as a baby rabbit, his breath caught in his throat, his heart thudding fast and sick. Shit. Fuck . His retreat cut off; nowhere to run. Oh, this just wasn’t happening to him. He wanted to scream, but that would bring death, sure as taxes, at best a bullet in his leg to keep him from running, so he stayed still and quiet and waited. .
A raspberry, dislodged by the weight of his body against the snaking brambles, fell to the ground, the small sounds of its passage through the leaves magnified by the silence. It hit earth and Dan shuddered. As if that had signaled the end of the waiting, in some way he didn’t understand, the person holding the weapon finally spoke. “I was looking to pick those for jam. Did you leave me any, boy?” He turned slowly, hands held up high, and met the cool, unfriendly gaze of a man with a metal pail at his feet and a rifle in his hands. The man was maybe twenty feet away, no more. For him to have gotten that close, unnoticed, he must walk like a cat, or, Dan reflected bitterly, Dan’s own greed had left him deaf and blind. And now he was going to pay for it. Well, at least he wasn’t going to die with his mouth empty of anything but the taste of spit. “I left you plenty, mister.” And he wasn’t going to beg, either. “’Sides,” he continued, “last I heard, the woods don’t belong to no one, so I’ve as much right eating them as you.” The sun was in his eyes and he couldn’t see what the man’s face looked like, not clearly, just the anger there, but the barrel of the rifle dipped and then there was the welcome sound of the safety going on. The man held the rifle across his body, the weight looking easy, familiar. “The woods might be free and clear, but this is my land, boy, bought and paid for, and those are my raspberries you’re stealing.” The man walked over and paused, far enough away that Dan would have had to have taken three steps to reach him. He didn’t think it was because the man was scared of him; it was just natural caution, like the kind his daddy had taught him. Except the lessons hadn’t stuck, had they, because here he was, guts rumbling, head aching from sun and hunger and just plain tiredness, with trouble looming and bruises from a beating the best he could hope for. “I didn’t know that.” He dredged up a sullen, grudging “sir” and tacked it onto the end of his words where it flapped loosely. .
“I bet you didn’t.” The man’s eyes were light, and his brown hair was cut military short and showing early signs of gray at the temples. He’d had it cut recently; the strip of pale skin below his ears gave that away. He looked dangerous, and it wasn’t because of the muscles a faded T-shirt and neatly buttoned denim shirt failed to hide, either. No, it was the eyes. Ice-gray, the color it got in winter with the dark, cold water swirling under it, fast and hidden. Those eyes didn’t belong here, in this green clearing on a fine July morning. “Would it have made any difference if you did know?” the man asked him. “No.” The man’s expression got closed-off and the skin around his eyes tightened. “I was awful hungry,” Dan offered by way of explanation. “Haven’t eaten since…” He hesitated and thought it through. Did he count the breakfast of the day before or not? “If you can’t remember, then I guess that means you must be.” Something that might have been a smile, a barely there quirk of his lips, passed over the man’s face. “Get back to town, boy, and tell your mom to cook you up a stack of pancakes.” “Town? What town?” The words were blurted out before he could stop them. “I mean, uh, I’m sort of turned around, mister; which direction should I take?” “Simcoe’s six miles due west,” the man said, and jerked his head. “That way. I take it that is where you’re from?” “Simcoe, yes, that’s it,” he said and nodded his head for good measure. Six miles? Could he walk that far? The raspberries had been tasty, but not all that filling. There might be a house he could stop at before he reached the town, someplace he could earn himself breakfast, at least. The man sighed. “Boy, you disappoint me. A thief and a liar? Hell’s just gaping open waiting for you, isn’t it?” There was an ironic undertone that made Dan doubt the man was the religious kind, but there was nothing amused in the look he got. .
“I don’t understand --” He swallowed, the taste of raspberries fading fast as he realized what the man had done. “You tricked me.” That didn’t get an answer, but something that obvious probably didn’t deserve one. “Ran away, did you?” To Dan’s way of thinking, that was the kind of question a man should think twice about asking; it wasn’t real likely you’d get a truthful answer to it. Somehow, though, with those eyes staring holes in him, lying wasn’t easy. He settled for a nod and then qualified it. “I’m not in trouble. And I’m old enough to do what I please. So it’s more like I’m… traveling.” “Traveling.” The man pursed his lips. “Yeah. I can see how that sounds better. Heading for somewhere, not running from.” Dan nodded. “I’m going to Canada.” Shoot. Never volunteer information; his granddaddy had taught him that and his daddy’s belt had slapped the lesson in deep. The man whistled admiringly through his teeth, and there was just the faintest warmth in his eyes now. Dan wished he could think he’d impressed the man, but he wasn’t dumb; the man was laughing at him. “Well, that’s a ways from here, so I guess you’d best make tracks, boy.” Dan eyed the space between them and took one cautious step forward. “I -- I’m sorry about the berries. I can pay --” He closed his eyes for a moment. He’d just told the man he had money; what was wrong with him? The man’s voice was about as gentle as it got, Dan figured. “Forget it. Just get off my land, okay? There’s a road into town -- Carlyle, it’s called -- about a mile away. I’ll point you in the right direction.” Dan nodded. “Thanks, mister.” The man stepped back, so that Dan could emerge from the tangle of briars, still not .
relaxed enough to turn his back, Dan noticed without surprise. They walked side by side to the far edge of the clearing, where another path began. “Down there.” The man pointed with a lean, strong hand, all long fingers and tan. “You’ll come to a split in the path; take the left one. Once you reach the road, turn left again. An hour or so’s walk will bring you into town.” “Maybe I’ll get a ride,” Dan said. He was too tired to be cautious, and it stood to reason that a quiet county road was going to be safer than the main highway. Only locals using it, and they wouldn’t risk fouling their own doorstep by using him for sex when he could flap his jaw around town and make it hot for them. The man glanced at him sharply. “That what you’ve been doing?” Dan shrugged. “Maybe. Sometimes.” He waited for a lecture, but he didn’t get one. Somehow, though, he got the feeling “stupid” had just been added to the list the man was making about him. “I can take care of myself,” he added. This time the glance was skeptical, but Dan got no more than a lifted eyebrow by way of comment. “Well, thanks again,” he said awkwardly, and, moved by an impulse he couldn’t explain, put out his hand. After a pause, the man took it, his palm warm and hard against Dan’s. It was like licking the end of a battery; Dan felt a spark and tingle race through him, sweet and sour, fire and ice. God, the last time he’d felt like this, he’d been naked, pressed close to Luke in the dark, his hands clumsy with nerves. The man’s eyes widened fractionally, and then every emotion drained away and left his face expressionless. He dropped Dan’s hand without shaking it and for the first time turned his back. .
Dan watched him walk across the clearing to the pail, the rifle cradled across his body again. The man didn’t turn back, and Dan got the idea that he wasn’t going to until Dan left. Which he did, his heart pounding with relief. He got about a hundred yards down the path when the dizziness inside his head swelled and burst, so that all he saw as the path came up to meet him was a sparkle of white against darkness. His last thought was that maybe the man had decided to shoot him after all. Chapter Two He’d nearly shot him in the back. A kid, hungry, lost, and Tyler’d come so close to ending him that the sweat was still wet in the small of his back. Tyler set his rifle down, propping it against a waist-high rock, lodged so that it couldn’t slip, and picked up the pail. His hand shook, a fine tremor that he felt more than saw. Shit. Not now. It’d been months -- He focused on the undeniable fact that he hadn’t shot the runaway and tried to fool himself that he hadn’t fallen so low as to shoot someone in the back, when he knew damn well if it was the safest way to do it, he’d take it. When you were planning to kill someone, giving them a warning wasn’t much of a kindness anyway. .
No; the kid was alive because his hands had been visible, reaching out for the berries, and he’d stayed nice and still. A sudden move, hands dipping down…Tyler would have shot without thought, and that wasn’t helping his hands to stop shaking one little bit. He began to walk to the half-stripped raspberry canes and then hesitated. He’d heard something. A faint cry and a thud. He placed the pail down noiselessly, not allowing the metal handle to strike the bucket, and retrieved his rifle. This was turning out to be one hell of a Wednesday morning. The boy lay crumpled in the middle of the path, what Tyler could see of his face pale under some streaks of dirt and smears of red. Even knowing it was raspberry juice didn’t stop his mind stubbornly insisting it was blood for a moment or two. There was no one in sight or reach of his hearing, and the birds weren’t crying out a warning, so the boy had most likely just fallen. Nothing to trip him, nothing but -- fairly - - soft earth to hit… I was awful hungry. Tyler cursed himself dispassionately and fluently before conceding defeat. Looked like he was going to have company for an hour or two; he couldn’t just leave the boy lying here. He’d feed the kid, maybe even slip him some money, and give him a ride into town… He didn’t consider himself a benevolent man, but he had a few errands he could run in Carlyle, and no matter how hungry the boy was, Tyler had enough food to fill the boy’s belly without leaving himself hungry. He stared at the rifle. He didn’t want to leave it behind, but if the kid didn’t wake soon, Tyler would need to carry him, and he wasn’t hauling the kid’s ass along a quarter-mile of trail with a rifle in his hand. The way his luck was going, he’d fall and shoot his fool head off. He settled for hiding it, unloaded, in the branches of a young white fir, some twenty feet .