Whit remained still, listening closely to the signals of the mountain night. An owl hooted, branches swaying, a pinecone thumped as it connected with the frozen ground. He gripped the bolt-action rifle to his body, finger stroking the cool trigger, his other hand affixed to the satiny walnut stock, every inch of him primed and ready for the unexpected, that sound that didn’t quite fit. He heard a rustle of dried leaves, the snap of a twig. A sound far too close for comfort had him wheeling around even as he hauled the rifle up to his shoulder. Whit had always been sort of a deliberate hunter.
He was not awfully fond of shooting things, but in these Kentucky hills, hunting wasn’t a sport so much as a livelihood. Although he felt more at home in the town library or even in front of the computer in his room, he’d learned to adapt with the help of his best friend.
“Whoa, boy. Just me, Whit,” a voice hissed in a loud whisper as a figure eased out from behind the scarred yellow pine. Slowly, Whit lowered the rifle and slid his finger off the trigger. Yeah, his best friend. He eyed the shadow of the not much older boy who acted more the man than most men his father’s age. Both of them just past nineteen, but life for Linc had proved far more antagonistic than for Whit.
“Shouldn’t creep up on a body like that. You oughta know better,” Whit said.
Linc grinned; his white teeth beamed in the darkness, sending a shiver down Whit’s spine. “You ain’t so impatient with that gun I didn’t know I’d have a minute ’fore I knew you’d shoot. One day that hesitation’s gonna get you kilt.” Linc strolled past Whit with a cocky, sure-of-himself stride that had Whit all tingly thinking about where they were headed, and what they planned to do once they arrived.
Linc flipped on his flashlight, not that he needed it. Linc Roydelle could navigate these Appalachian woods in pitch black if it came down to it. He was a much better tracker than Whit would ever be. Whit was transplanted Floridian; Linc’s kin were born and bred in these parts going back more than a few generations. Some even said the Roydelles had Boone blood in their veins. Whit wouldn’t be at all surprised.
“You sure about this?” Whit asked as he jogged to catch up with Linc.
Linc spun around, shadows flittering across his angular face. His gaze narrowed as he studied Whit. Anybody else and that mean look would have had another man backing down real quick. But Whit and Linc -- well, they’d known each other for a while now. “You can go back if you want. I jes’ thought --”
“Shut the fuck up and get going. I didn’t mean it that way.”
“You sure about that? Sure your pa won’t come looking for you? He keeps a pretty tight rein on your comin’s and goin’s. And he sure as hell don’t like me much.”
“If we could do this different, don’t you think I would? It’s not you. You damn well know if anybody in this county found out about us, that what we’ve got is more than...friendly, they’d likely tar and feather the both of us.”
Linc remained still as stone, staring at Whit for so long Whit thought he’d turned to a statue. What they were doing was dangerous -- not just for Whit, but for Linc as well. If Linc’s kin found out that his secret lover was a man all hell would break loose.
“It’s not your fault,” Linc said, his tone low, almost blending in with the wind in the trees. Whit could barely make out his words above the rustle of branches. “It’s me. I ain’t right. And I’ve dragged you with me. You should go home. You’re going up north to college soon. You’re gonna make something of yourself. You’ll be shut of me, that’s fer shore.”
Whit’s normally cool temper flared. “God damn you, Linc Roydelle. You think I’m that fair weather, that you can just push me around to do whatever you say? I’m a man too, damn you. We’re in this together, no matter what.” Whit strode forward, eating up the space between them, clamped his hand around Linc’s nape, dragged him forward, and kissed him, deep and hungry. But he made it quick, caution always riding the both of them. “There’s other places, Linc. There are places we could be together, and nobody’d care.” How many times had they gone over this? Damn Linc for being so stubborn.
“‘Stay while ye will, or go,’” Linc murmured. He bit his lip, then spun away and strode off through the woods. Damn him. There he went, quoting the Elizabethan poet Robert Herrick. Whit never should have given him that book, but he’d looked so forlorn that night he’d found him kneeling next to the Kentucky, thinking about his mother. They’d talked about her, the memories Linc had of the old folk songs she used to sing to him at bedtime. Words he barely remembered, him being eight when she disappeared. Whit couldn’t bear the pain he’d seen etched on his face. It was the first time they’d made love.
At the time, Whit thought the book was a brilliant idea. And the look on Linc’s face when he’d begun to read the sonnets within the battered pages had made it all seem the right thing to do. But he only ever quoted Herrick when he was in a melancholy mood. Like tonight. He never could just come out and say a thing inside his head; he had to quote Herrick. Didn’t he realize Whit was hurting, just as much, at the impending parting?
Whit sprinted forward to catch up, almost tripping on several exposed roots. Nope, he certainly didn’t have Linc’s instincts for these woods. They didn’t exchange words again until they came to an unkempt clearing with overgrown bush and vine that seemed to gobble up the old shanty. A wooden cabin aged almost beyond remaining upright stood at the edge of Roydelle land, near the banks of the Kentucky River. Linc’s ancestors had been trappers and hunters who first settled this area. The story went that Linc’s great-great-grandfather had married a Shawnee squaw, and this was the home he’d constructed for her. The place was not much to look at, probably not much back then either. But she’d given him a passel of kids; most of their generations settled across these Appalachians.
Linc stormed into the shanty first, almost taking the door off its old, rusty hinges. He went to the ancient oil lantern, fished out a box of matches from the pocket of his jeans, struck one, and lit the lantern. The windows were covered by layers of old woven blankets to keep any nosy busybodies from peeping in. Whit set the safety on his rifle and leaned it upright near the door. Being pretty darn close to midnight, it wasn’t likely anyone would be passing by, but neither of them wanted to take chances.
The shanty was on its last legs for sure, but it served the purpose. The cold November wind whistled through the wooden slats, causing the lantern flame to flicker, casting giant shadows over the walls. But this place was all they had, the only place they could be themselves.
It was hard -- so damned hard sometimes when he spotted Linc in Jackson -- not saying hello to him the way he wanted. Not being able to touch him, to proclaim their true relationship to the world. Not to show him how much he loved him and wanted to be with him. But for both their sakes, they dared hardly acknowledge each other. Nothing more than a nod in passing.
“How’s things at your daddy’s bank? I hear some of the boys might be putting some pressure on him for loans and such.”
Whit shrugged. “He doesn’t talk about work much at home. Even if there were problems, he wouldn’t discuss it in front of my mother. He always puts on a good face.” Whit shrugged out of his suede sheepskin-lined coat and hung it on the nail next to the rifle. He sat down on the rickety cane-backed chair and pulled off his hunting boots.
If anybody found out about this place -- if they found out about Linc and Whit and how they came to be here -- it could get damned bloody. Knowing Linc’s kin, it would likely be Whit who found his body shoved down some abandoned mining shaft. Bodies did that around here -- folks disappearing and their kin never knowing if they were alive or dead, never getting a decent burial. Some nights sitting round the campfires, the men, moonshiners and hunters alike, spun stories, shivery yarns about ghosts of those murdered folks walking these mountains, always looking for a way out, and never finding it. They were stories that seemed far too real. Whit was certain he’d heard these old hills talk to him a time or two.
Linc pulled out a glass fruit jar from the deep pocket of his moth-eaten black-and-red plaid hunting jacket. He unscrewed the cap and took a deep swallow. He made a face, and his eyes teared. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth.
“Ain’t the best stuff made. Tastes more like pine pitch than anything else. But it’ll warm your insides sure enough.”
He held the jar of moonshine out to Whit. Whit wondered if it was some of Linc’s daddy’s brew.
“You been fooling around with that still of your daddy’s?” he asked. Since Linc’s father was arrested and sent to prison two years back, his still hadn’t been running. Whit had really tried hard to get Linc to walk away from the life, knowing he could end up in prison just like Old Man Roydelle, and that was something he couldn’t stand thinking about. Whit crossed the room, accepted the jar, and took a shallow sip. The fire from the 100-plus-proof corn liquor practically seared his throat as though he’d swallowed a thousand fire ants all wanting a piece of him. “Damn, that’s strong. You sure it won’t kill us?”
“Nah. And no, it ain’t mine. Done some odds and ends for Nasty Dan, and he give me some of this.”
Whit stilled. “You did what?”
“Not what you think, dammit. Jes’ put together some hickory barrels so he could age up some of his better stuff all proper like. Ask the wrong man to do that sort of work, and he gets to asking too many questions and talking where he shouldn’t. So I did him a favor. He’s my uncle, for shit’s sake -- I couldn’t say no. And Aunt Mae wanted some shelves put up in her special storeroom. I give ’em a hand with it. Got him some wood from the lumberyard. Some of the extras nobody wanted. That shelf came out right nice too. Puts a little something extra in my pocket; the lumber mill don’t exactly pay the best rates for someone like me.”
“I didn’t mean -- I wasn’t saying --” It was difficult finding decent work that paid much. But Whit’s family connections gave him a leg up in some ways. In this part of the hills, Nasty Dan had taken over as head of the family when Linc’s father went to prison. Though he was Linc’s uncle, he never liked Linc referring to him that way. Linc said it didn’t show proper respect for his position in the county. And he was hard on Linc after his brother, Linc’s father, George, went to prison. Family in these parts could be a double-edged sword since most of Linc’s kin were involved in shady dealings. Nasty Dan ran Linc hard but protected him from outside interference, ready to kill anyone who thought to cause him harm.
Linc, having a real gift for working with his hands and crafting with wood, had been able to find work and keep one step ahead of the foster system until he’d turned eighteen. Wiley as hell, that was for sure. Whit had always admired how Linc had managed to finish school, work at the lumber mill, and stay just below the radar, but keep clear of his uncle’s trade in moonshine.
“Sure you was. But it don’t matter,” Linc said without rancor. “Not all of us has the knack for book learning the way you do. Your mind works in magical ways, Whit Hancock. We do what we can to get by. That’s why you’re going off to college and I’m...not.” Linc set the jar down on the rickety table. “Come here,” he said, then pulled off his flannel shirt and the thermal one beneath, leaving his chest bare. It was a sight Whit never got tired of looking at. Linc had one fine and beautiful physique. Working at the mill, he had one hell of a hard, toned body.
“Move it,” Linc said. Whit quickly yanked his sweater over his head and tossed it aside. The chill in the air wrapped around him, but he knew that wouldn’t last long.
There wasn’t a need for a fire in the old stove, not by a longshot. Once Whit went into Linc’s arms, he forgot everything, and no one else outside this old shanty existed.
Time was short, or so it seemed to Whit. The kisses wet and tasting of moonshine, tongues that dueled and tangled, lips that sucked, hands that demanded, all with an urgency borne from the few hours they had and the possibility of discovery at any moment. Whit slid his hand inside Linc’s jeans, and he curled his fingers around Linc’s erection. He was hot and moist inside those jeans of his and more than ready to be free of confinement.
Linc’s nimble fingers were at Whit’s jeans, unfastening and unzipping. He shoved them quickly down over Whit’s narrow hips.
“Did you bringthem?” Linc asked as he cupped Whit’s ass.
“Yeah, it’s in my jacket pocket.” He was talking about the tube of lube and the condoms that Whit had gone all the way to Lexington to buy. Neither of them had dared try to purchase them anywhere closer, and Whit had the better vehicle. And mail order just wasn’t happening. It hadn’t been easy for Whit, and he’d been nervous, let alone embarrassed. But at least at the small out-of-the-way drugstore just on the outskirts of Lexington, no one knew him, and it wasn’t likely to get around. No questions as to what he wanted the items for. But their days were numbered before Whit’s departure for college, and he wanted this night to be good for both of them.
Slipping away had increasingly become more difficult for them in making time to be together now that they were out of school and had different sets of responsibilities. Whit was willing to take the chance to make the sex as good as he could for both of them. Lube and condoms, and damned if it hadn’t made him feel more the man when he walked out of that drugstore with the goods in hand.
“Get them,” Linc said, his voice breathless and tight.
Whit kissed him again. Ran more kisses down his throat, across his shoulder blades. Then he quickly scampered over to his jacket and pulled out the tube and the box of condoms and dropped them at the edge of the musty old green sleeping bags spread out on the plank floor.
The two of them dropped onto the blanket, chilly at first but quickly warming. The oil lantern flickered, sending shadows skittering across the room. Linc stretched out over Whit.
“I don’t know what I’m gonna do once you’ve quit this place.” He leaned down and tweaked one of Whit’s nipples with his tongue, then drew it into his mouth, tugging on it. Linc’s body smelled of wild mountain ruggedness -- fragrant yellow pine and cold winter wind, sweat salty, hot cinnamon tasty. Whit arched up. His fingers bit into Linc’s shoulders. Linc sucked harder, and Whit arched up as the flood of hot excitement built inside, curling tightly in his groin. Whit’s hand roamed over Linc’s back, fingertips tracing the sinewy muscle. A mite too slender a body, but still with a sheathed litheness and agility that many underestimated when they looked at him. Like a cougar, he knew and hunted these mountains, earned respect, if not fear. Whit had been drawn to Linc like a thirsty man drawn to fine aged whiskey. And the two were just as inseparable, always drawn back one to the other, time and time again, even though they knew the dangers of their deepening relationship. And Whit had a feeling that was the way it always would be. Once you got a pining for a real good man, there wasn’t nothing that could substitute for the original. The geeky banker’s son and the son of a moonshiner who was about as tame as the Kentucky River during a springtime flood. Who’d have thought?
There was a scent of old and stale about this place; dust and dirt drifted around them. Whit looked up into Linc’s face, cupped his jaw, then leaned up and kissed him. They rolled, and Linc was now on the bottom. Whit watched the shadows flicker across his lean features. Coal black hair and sundown blue eyes. Hungry like a wolf came to mind -- just like that old song. Whit straddled him. He lifted up and gazed down at Linc.
“You could come too. Let me get settled in Boston, into the routine, and then you can come join me. I’ll get a part-time job -- we both will -- and we can get an apartment together.”
They tangled tongues, darting back and forth in a hungry game of passion. Linc laughed; Whit joined him. And then it was Whit on the bottom once again and Linc rising atop him.
“We could do that, couldn’t we? I could save up working at the lumber mill. I’ll work hard, save as much as I can.”
“Yeah. We can do this. Nobody knows us there. Besides, in Boston it will all be different. At least so I’ve heard.”
Whit saw Linc’s eyes darken and dilate. He inched down Whit’s body, down to his cock, and Whit waited with bated breath. Waited to feel Linc’s mouth surround his prick, sucking him deep. And when he did...
“Fuck, yes,” he said and shifted his hips, driving more of his cock into the moist, hot recesses of Linc’s eager mouth. How was he going to live without this man even for a few months while he got things going for the two of them in Boston?
Whit’s cock, slippery with Linc’s saliva, popped free of Linc’s lips. He glanced up at Whit. “You sure you need that lube? That cock of yours looks pretty wet and slippery to me. And I want you to fuck me right now -- I want to feel you fucking me. It’s only ever been you and me, Whit. Just you and me.”
The lube and the rubbers had been a good idea at the time. But now, here with his cock glistening from Linc’s attention, they seemed unnecessary.
“Screw it,” Whit said. “Forget that damned shit. I don’t care what they say in those articles. I want you.”
Linc grinned and turned around, exposing his ass to Whit. And Whit wasted no time in rising and positioning himself behind Linc.
“You’re not ready for me.”
“Good enough. You’re ready. Now fuck me. No more waiting.”
Whit tried to take his time; he didn’t want to hurt Linc. He pressed the head of his prick to Linc’s opening, slowly pushing in. God, he felt good. Real good. Whit’s heart pumped faster; the coil in his belly wound tighter, nerve-endings sparked to attention, as the crown of Whit’s prick slipped inside. Linc groaned. Whit tried to control his entry, but then Linc surged backward, taking the length of Whit’s cock into him. He fit snug as a caterpillar wound up in the sheath of its cocoon. Linc groaned, then lifted up onto his knees and arched back against Whit. Oh, God, that hard body pressed so tight to his own. Whit closed his eyes and fastened his hands to Linc’s hips and began to ride him. Linc fisted his own cock, jerking his hand up and down the length.
“Is that the way you want it?” Whit kissed Linc’s neck, tracking up to his ear.
“Yes, just like that. It’s gonna have to last me.” Linc tipped his head back and turned his head. He wet his lips, opened his mouth, and Whit claimed him, thrusting his tongue deep inside, sucking at his lips. The kiss was so hot, he thought they’d both go up in flames.
Linc yielded his hard, lean body so perfectly. His channel gripped so tightly. And when he came, Whit’s cries were caught and swallowed by Linc. And when Linc orgasmed, it was Whit who consumed his yell of completion.
“Are you going to fuck those college boys when you get to Boston?” Linc asked as he lay back upon the sleeping blanket minutes later. Whit fell next to him. Linc wrapped his arms around Whit and drew him against his chest.
“I told you I wasn’t. But damn, when you get to Boston, you better be ready for a marathon of fucking, boy.”
“Once you get there, you may not want me. If that’s how it turns out, don’t fuss about it, Whit. It’s okay. Not sure I’d do so good in that big city anyway.” Whit felt the tension growing in the way Linc held himself, but Whit was having none of it.
He tightened his arms around Linc, trying to assure him, trying to hold on to him, to absorb him. He so wished they were leaving together. He hated the thought of abandoning Linc. “That’s not going to happen. I’ll be sending you a ticket, and I’ll be waiting for you. I love you, Linc. No matter what they think here in these hills, it doesn’t matter. I love you, and you’re the person I want to be with always. I promise you, Linc, I will send for you. Will you come?”
Linc pressed closer. “If you want me, I’ll do it. ’Cause, no matter what, I guess I love you. And if I got to make a choice between Kentuck and you, it’s gonna be you. I promise, I won’t let you down.”
Whit wanted time to fly by so they could stop hiding and be together. He only hoped that when he did get to Boston, things worked out the way he envisioned. And that Linc followed through on his promise because he loved this man so much. He was afraid that once he left Breathitt County, Linc might not be able to say no to his gun-toting, moonshine-making kin. And if he lost Linc, he didn’t know what he would do. His first priority was going to be to get things in order so he and Linc could be together.