“No one must ever come here,” Danny commented. Jilly was focused on the forest floor and didn’t answer, but he was right. The carpet of woods was undisturbed, and the trail she and her brother were following was unmarked by old boot tracks from anybody else.
Danny stopped to sit back on his heels and look up into the clear sky. The sound of Jilly’s woodpecker was louder; either they’d gotten nearer, or else the bird (or whatever was making the noise; he still wasn’t convinced it was necessarily a pecker) had flown in their direction. Tap tap tap tap thwock tap thwock. He stood back up. “Come on. Let’s go find your not-bird.”
Obediently Jilly followed, too happy with the day and the peace in the woods to respond to the comment. The trail narrowed, and the siblings walked single file without making noise as they followed an occasional tap thwock. The noise was less frequent and had stabilized itself to a point somewhere not far off.
Jilly looked behind her to see if she’d missed anything back down the trail, and promptly ran into her brother. Danny stood in the middle of it, concentrating on something ahead.
“Someone lives out here.” He pointed left. The trail rose a little, and they stood on the only point where the building could be seen clearly at all. Jilly squinted; she would need glasses soon, but so far nobody had noticed. Jilly’s quick wits compensated for what she lacked in visual acuity. Jilly narrowed her eyes into slits until she made out a dull brown building. It was a small hut, and the builder hadn’t bothered to clear out any of the trees or surrounding underbrush.
Danny and Jill went nearer, moving more slowly but intensely curious. Danny didn’t say anything as they kept following the trail. He ignored the No Trespassing sign nailed to a tree; Danny knew his sister hadn’t seen the other signs either, all warning they were on private property.
The trail ended abruptly. They stood at the edge of a wall of brambles, towering 4 feet above their heads. The screen of thick blackberry canes shielded the cabin from sight. Sharp points grabbed onto Danny’s knap sack when he went nearer, and he shrugged the pack off his shoulders and set it on the ground as he searched for a way through the thorny wall. The surrounding ground was awkward with rocks.
“We’ll never get through this,” Danny said.
“Over here.” His sister had found a path cunningly cut into the bramble, low enough that an adult would need to duck down to see it at all. The two children were just the right height to make out the path, visible only if you were searching for a way through the thicket. Jilly and her brother made their way into the low brush, moving carefully to avoid getting snagged.
They came out on the opposite side of the briar hedges and discovered they were close to the dwelling. It was constructed of smooth planks of wood and had a single door that was closed, and no windows. Jill moved back to the trees beyond the cabin, still looking for her bird. She vanished almost immediately into the darkness created by shadows of the tall trees. Danny circled around the side of the cabin.
He stepped into a messy clearing filled with wire cages, some of them with busted wire netting, all of them empty. Other than the ground under the abandoned cages, nothing had been cleaned or cleared. He discovered another, smaller hut almost completely hidden by the bushes and saplings crowding back into the forest.
There was no longer any sound of the hammering. “Told you there wasn’t a wood pecker,” Danny began to call after his sister. Before he could finish the words a shrill yapping drowned out his voice.
Danny shrieked and something banged against the hut’s inner walls. It went on banging without pause, as if a gigantic creature with fifty frantic scrabbling legs climbed up the wall in a desire to attack him. The yaps didn’t let up for a second. Things were hurling themselves against the planks, rabid with anger. For a moment the clearing was suddenly, terribly still, all sound sucked out of the day and into the creatures trying to break their way out of the cabin.
Danny glanced wildly around the clearing. He ran over to the cages and put his weight on the nearest one to see if they were stable enough for him to climb up out of biting range. He was testing the surprisingly thick wooden frames when the cabin’s owner stepped out in front of him.
Danny wondered why the burly man was wearing boots on a warm day, but the shovel the man carried took up his attention. “What’s your name? What do you think you’re doing?” The adult went on talking without waiting for an answer.
“I’m Danny Tarbery,” Danny answered. “I was just riding around, out exploring, that’s all.”
“Danny? Why, that’s my name, too.” The man came closer. “Danny. Dan. You can call me Big Dan. Little Danny, you’re a long ways from town for exploring.” Danny swallowed hard and tried not to make a face. Big Dan smelled unbelievably bad. It was a stench of very old sweat, the crusty plaid shirt he wore, and the mud caking the shovel and his boots with a combination of earth and partially decomposed swamp grasses.
Big Dan was directly in front of Danny but he didn’t stop coming. Danny backed up until he was cornered between the man, the cages, and the cabin. He stumbled a little as his body touched the back wall. The dogs became aware of his presence against it outside and Danny felt the boards yield. They threw themselves against the wood over and over, the movements harder and more insistent.
The man bared his lips and brown teeth showed in an incongruously attractive smile. He flicked almost white hair out of his face and never let go of the dirty shovel. “What d’you think you’re exploring for?”
There was a pause inside as the canines heard the older man’s voice. The thudding began again even harder. Danny literally felt them as they scrabbled up and down the other side of the thin planks. The frame and walls shuddered; the dogs were rabid to get outside. Danny began trembling, and couldn’t stop.
“You had to come looking even though the road out there has a bunch of No trespassing signs, right?” The owner pointed in the direction of the dirt track, clearly indicating it as the road in question. “You saw the signs, don’t pretend you didn’t.” He looked at Danny, calculating. “Boy, how old are you?”
“My step father’s waiting for me,” Danny began.
He heard the snapping of brush littering the ground off to the right on the far side of the cabin. The door to the cabin creaked as it opened and there was silence for four seconds. The air filled back up with shrill barking. Danny listened terrified as dogs sniffed the air and dashed towards where he stood trapped against the back wall of the cabin.
Calmly the man with the terrible smell turned and called out, “We got a visitor here. Stop!”
Danny watched in incomprehension as three dogs, far too small to have produced the huge amount of chaotic noise, immediately stood at attention. He wanted to laugh, but he was too scared. “Chihuahuas?” Danny said.
(Photo from Wikipedia)
– from my short story “Just Riding Around” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.