Cold nipped at Matt’s nose and slipped down the back of his throat, tickling it, and leaving him coughing into his hand.
Jason nudged him in the ribs on his way past. “You sick? I don’t like hunting with sick people.”
In front of them, their breath mingled in white wisps, reminding them both that they were well into autumn and winter would be here soon.
Matt shot Jason a look. “I’m not sick. My body’s just not ready for it to be this cold yet.”
Jason paused at the top of the hill and looked down into the leaf-covered gully, catching his breath. “Have faith, we live in Pennsylvania. It will be warm again by next week and then cold again and then warm and then finally we will be plunged into a frozen hell for the next three months.”
Matt laughed. “True.”
Leaves crunched under their feet and Matt dodged a fall tree limb, peering into the trees, searching for the deer he’d shot but had taken off 15 minutes earlier.
“Hey, Matt, been meaning to ask you about something,” Jason shifted his gun on his shoulder.
“The birth announcement?”
Jason nodded. “Yep.”
“You want to know if I’m really the father.”
“I know you’re not. Gabe’s the father. Everyone knows that.”
Matt shrugged. “Not everyone. Just everyone close to the situation.”
“So . . . did she or you tell them you were the father?”
Matt paused and opened his thermos, sipping the coffee he’d made a few hours earlier. “I did. She wasn’t very happy about it. She told me to tell the nurse not to put it in the newspaper and I did but I guess there was some sort of miscommunication.”
Jason whistled. “Wow. That was quite a bold move on your part. What were you thinking?”
“That I didn’t want Liz and Bella connected to Gabe anymore than they already were,” Matt said with a sigh, screwing the lid back on the thermos.
“What did your mom say?
“She’s supportive. Luckily, I caught her before she saw the paper or anyone told her. Thank God for her being so busy with baking that week. I didn’t totally think it through, of course. Pastor Taylor asked me to step down from leading the teen boys, but the timing worked since I’ll be gone in a few more weeks.”
Jason cocked an eyebrow as he zipped his coat up under his neck. “He seriously asked you to step down?”
Matt started walking again. “He didn’t want to, but the parents were a little bothered by their boys being taught the Bible by a man who fathered a child out of wedlock.”
Jason nodded as she followed him. “I guess I can understand that but if they knew the situation —”
“If they knew the situation then they’d know more than they have any business knowing.”
They walked a few more feet in silence.
“What does that mean legally?” Jason asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, if you’re legally listed as her dad does that mean you are financially responsible for her?”
“I don’t think so, but if Liz ever needed help, I would. She’s pretty independent, though. I doubt she’d let me.”
Jason pointed down into a gully in front of them. “There it is. Looks like you got it after all.”
The men made their way down the embankment to the carcass of an eight-point buck. There had been a moment when it disappeared from sight that Matt had thought maybe he hadn’t killed it after all, and it was staggering through the woods injured.
He enjoyed hunting, but he was less of a fan if he injured an animal and then had to shoot it again to put it out of its misery. If he did hunt, he didn’t do it for sport. He’d clean and dress the animal and take him to the local butcher and use the meat for the rest of the winter, maybe even into the spring. The one benefit of living as a bachelor was that he could cook the same meal over and over again.
Matt knelt next to the animal and drew his knife. “Too bad he rolled down here. It won’t be fun carrying him out.”
Jason lifted his arms and flexed his arm. “Leave that to me, puny man,” he said in a thick European accent. “I can carry your haul for you. When you’re done, you go on ahead and get the ATV and I’ll meet you at the access road.”
Matt leaned back on his heels and quirked an eyebrow. “Puny man? Really? Just because your muscles are as big as my head doesn’t mean I am a puny man, Tanner. I’m perfectly capable of carrying my deer to the access road. Plus, let me point out that I got a deer today and you didn’t, remember?”
Jason laughed. “Hey, come on. It’s barely nine in the morning. I don’t have to be back at the farm for a couple more hours. I still have time.” He leaned over and poked Matt’s bicep. “But you, little man, don’t have time to build up muscle before we need to carry this deer out.” He laughed again as he swung his gun onto his shoulder. “Seriously, I’ll head down for the ATV. It will take me a while to hike down and by then you should have this dressed and carried down.”
Jason was right, of course. He was more muscular. Having played football in high school and college, plus lugging heavy hay bales and farm equipment around every day, Jason did have a lot more upper body strength than Matt and almost anyone Matt knew.
And, well, Matt hadn’t exactly been trying to build bulk while training for the academy. Yes, he had been trying to get into better shape by running down the dirt road circle that led him three miles from the cabin and then back again, but, no, he hadn’t been working out at a gym almost daily like Jason did.
Jason had even convinced Alex to go with him to the gym at least three times a week.
Alex. The man who for years had scoffed at his friends at the mere mention of an exercise routine. Matt would guess that his dating Jason’s sister had changed his mind about working out, especially after Molly’s ex-boyfriend had shown up in town looking well-toned and charming.
“Before I go, I’m just curious,” Jason said. “Are you doing all this because you love Liz?”
Matt worked on the deer as he looked up at his friend. “Liz and I are —”
Jason scoffed. “Don’t tell me you and Liz are just friends, McGee. I see the way you look at her. You’ve been there for her every step of the way through this pregnancy, even though the baby wasn’t yours, and let’s be honest. Very honest. You’ve liked Liz since high school. You might be friends but I have a feeling at least one of you wants there to be more.”
Matt looked back at the deer, grinning. “Don’t you have an ATV to go get?”
Jason laughed as he turned to walk back up the hill. “Looks like someone can’t handle the truth today.”
Matt stood with the deer across his shoulders 20-minutes after Jason left, hooking his arms over the deer to hold it in place. He’d thought about what Jason had said the entire time he’d been dressing the deer and he knew Jason was right. Matt did want something more with Liz, but he was also content to be her friend right now. It was what she needed most of all.
Holding it in this position with a gun strapped to his back, he laughed at the thought of how ridiculous he probably looked, despite feeling slightly manly walking through the woods with his catch for the day sprawled across his shoulders. Now to remember which direction the access road was. Jason was more familiar with this section of the woods. His family had owned part of it for years and while Matt had hunted here with him off and on for the past 15 years, he still got turned around more often than not.
Walking up the gully to the hilltop opposite of how he’d come down, he looked through what felt like miles and miles of maple and ash trees but nothing else. He was fairly certain the access road was due east so he headed that way. When his phone rang ten minutes later he ignored it at first, but then when it stopped and then started again, stopped and started again, he worried it might be an emergency.
Laying the deer down wasn’t an easy feat but once the carcass was lying in the leaves, he zipped his camouflage jacket open and reached for his phone in the inside pocket of his coveralls.
“Matt. Where are you?” The voice sounded far away.
“Liz? Anything wrong?”
“McGee, I wanted to ask you the other . . didn’t you tell me . . .*static*”
He plugged a finger in his ear as if that would help improve the service on a wooded hill in the middle of nowhere. “Tell you what?”
Static. “. . .apartment . . .”
“Liz, you’re breaking up. Is something going on at the apartment?”
“No! We’re fine. I’m talking about . . .” Static. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
The line went dead, and he looked at his phone screen, bewildered. Call lost.
Tell her what?
He walked a few feet forward and tried to call her back. No service. He moved a few steps back. Still no service. Great.
What was that all about? Should he go back down the hill and try to call her again? He shrugged.
She said everything was fine. He’d call her when he got back to the cabin. He needed to get this deer out and hung before the meat went bad.
Sliding the phone back into his inside pocket, he looked through the rows of trees and squinted. A rooftop peeked through the tree line, something he’d never seen before walking up here. He looked around and then leaned forward on his knees, looking lower. He saw what looked like junk cars scattered among the leaves. He leaned back up and after a few minutes of thinking realized he’d walked a little more south than east because he was looking at Bunky Taylor’s abandoned junkyard. Bunky had died a year ago and no one had been up to clean the site up, mainly because no one in his family knew exactly how to dispose of all the junk cars Bunky had collected in the 40 years he’d owned the junkyard and mechanic business.
The access road was a little further up more to the east. It wouldn’t hurt to take a shortcut through the junkyard, see how much it had grown over since it had been abandoned. He slung the deer back over his shoulder and headed down through the wooded area where he was able to get a better view of the junkyard and Bunky’s old house, a ranch home built on top of stilts with a makeshift carport built with two-by-fours and metal sheeting. The roof of the house was sagging in some places, red shutters askew on some of the windows, dark brown staining the gray siding.
A puff of smoke from the chimney drew his attention and he paused before walking down the hill through the vehicles, noting tools laying in the leaves next to one or two of them. It looked like someone might be living here after all.
He dropped the deer in a grassy area next to the dirt parking lot, located in front of the house. A swing set installed next to the house and a tricycle and other children’s toys scattered across the front lawn alerted him to the realization that a family must be living in the home, despite its dilapidated appearance.
“Can I help you?”
He turned to his right abruptly, startled by the voice. He was even more startled at the sight of a man walking from a crude shed practically hidden from view by two vintage rusted Chevy trucks and the limbs of a large oak tree that rose up from the middle of the junkyard and cast shadows like the spindly fingers of a wisped specter. The man wore a pair of gray coveralls smudged with oil and dirt, dark brown work boots obviously well worn, and was unshaven with black grease smeared on his cheek and forehead.
Although his hair was short in the back, strands of dirty blond hair hung down across his forehead and eyes. His jaw tightened and his eyes narrowed when he saw Matt and Matt didn’t have to guess why.
“Bernie. Hey. I didn’t know you were living here.”
Bernie kept his eyes on Matt while he continued to wipe his hands on the rag. He chewed on the inside of his lower lip for a few minutes, as if trying to decide how he wanted to answer.
“Moved in about six months ago. Rentin’ it from Bunky’s son.”
The tension in his response was evident, but why wouldn’t it be? Bernie had been released from jail about eight months ago and Matt was the cop who put him there. It wasn’t as if Matt expected the man to walk up and shake his hand.
Bernie tipped his head up slightly, jerking his chin toward the deer carcass laying in his yard. “Out huntin’?”
Matt nodded, shoving his hands in his pockets. “Yep. Bagged an eight-point. Supposed to meet Jason Tanner at the access road to the Shaffer’s property up the road away but got off course.”
Bernie smirked. “Guess you didn’t learn how to read a compass at that police academy.”
Matt didn’t hear the contempt in the comment that he expected he would. He laughed and Bernie smiled, revealing a few missing teeth on the bottom front row. Matt was about to excuse himself when he heard the squeak of the front door of the house and saw movement out of the corner of his eye. A small girl, maybe 7 or 8, darted down the paint-chipped steps with a boy of about 5 following behind. The pair ran to Bernie and tossed their arms around him the girl holding on to his waist, the boy to his leg, just above the knee.
“Hey, there.” Bernie ruffled the girl’s hair. “What you out here for?”
“Mom said to tell you breakfast is ready,” the girl answered, looking first at her father and then turning her attention to Matt, wide blue eyes boring into him.
“Did you come to take my daddy back to jail?”
The words hit Matt full force in the chest. She said them without emotion, speaking in a matter-of-fact tone found more often in an adult than such a young child. He wondered how she knew who he was and if he should be worried Bernie’s young daughter knew he was the man who had arrested her father.
Matt decided to be just as blunt. “No, ma’am. I was just hunting in the woods today and came here by accident. What’s your name?”
“Marlie and this is my brother Jerry.” Her direct tone and gaze unnerved him, but he had a feeling she’d had to learn to be tough in her short life and that thought unnerved him even more.
“Nice to meet you,” he said.
He looked back at Bernie thought about how Reggie had asked about keeping an eye on him and hoped he wouldn’t have to. He hoped Bernie had turned his life around if not for his own sake, then for the sake of his children.
As if reading his mind Bernie laid a hand on the top of his son’s head and cleared his throat. “I’ve kept myself clean, McGee. If you’re here to try to get dirt on me, you’re going to be disappointed.”
Matt held a hand up and shook his head. “Bernie, I assure you that I had no idea you were living here. What I told you about hunting and getting off track is the truth.”
Bernie nodded, frowned, and looked at the ground. “Okay then. I believe you. You’re not one for lying. Never were.” He chuckled, revealing his missing teeth again. “If you had been then I might not have been in jail for those six months.” He spit at the ground, shrugged a shoulder. “But, I deserved it. I know that. I got myself messed up with the wrong crowd. I have a talent for doing that, I guess.”
Matt knew it also didn’t help he’d been raised in the wrong crowd.
“I didn’t like arresting you, Bern. I hope you know that. There are very few people police actually enjoy arresting.”
Bernie ran a hand gently down his daughter’s, white-blond hair and tipped his head toward the yard, and looked down at her. “Why don’t you and Jerry go play a while, k?”
After the kids darted across the yard and back into the house, Bernie looked at Matt. “Sure did suck when you busted me, but maybe it was what I needed, you know? A wake-up call. Gotta hit rock bottom to come back up, right? I’m starting a junkyard and car business, turning over a new leaf, starting over. For the sake of Chrissy and the kids.”
Chrissy. That’s right. Matt remembered Bernie had married Chrissy Trenton from high school, another person who’d had a hard life.
“Glad to hear that, Bern. I wish you luck. I really do.”
Bernie nodded. “Thanks, McGee. I appreciate that.” He nodded toward the deer. “You better go meet Tanner. Don’t want that meat tainted.”
Matt turned and head back toward the dirt road next to the junkyard. He hoped Bernie was telling the truth and that he’d really turned his life around. Maybe the state police were wrong about Bernie. Maybe he wasn’t running a meth ring. From the quick glances he’d given around the property while walking into and out of it, Matt hadn’t seen anything that would toss a red flag up for him in relation to drugs, but he knew that the shed could have been one place to hide it.
Lord, please don’t let there be anything there. I don’t like the idea of taking a father away from his children.