The Hermit of Scarecrow Valley
by Robert Lubrican
Copyright 2013 Robert Lubrican
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Table of Contents
Prologue, One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten, Eleven, Twelve, Thirteen,
Fourteen, Fifteen, Sixteen, Seventeen, Eighteen, Nineteen, Twenty, Twenty-one, Twenty-two, Twenty-three
As a boy, Robert Francis Higginbotham was as thoroughly unremarkable as most boys think they are. He was of average height, with average features, and average intelligence. His hair was the same brown color as millions of other boys. His vision was less than perfect, but not enough to show up on the average school eye exam. Had he tried to become a pilot, it would have come out, but he didn't try to become a pilot.
He did, however, join the military.
He decided to join the Marines because he didn't know what to go to college for. Moreover, school hadn't been his favorite thing. He had pulled down solid C's, with a sprinkling of B's thrown in there, and one A in music. So going on to more schooling wasn't something he looked forward to eagerly. He chose the Marines because he had read several books about SEAL missions in Vietnam.
That's what I mean by solid C's. He believed SEALs were Marines. Close ... but no cigar.
Ironically, when he decided to join up to avoid college, it hadn't occurred to him that being in the Marines would involve going to more classes. But, at least, they were different kinds of classes. For example: None of his high school teachers had cursed or threatened anybody on a routine basis. For another, "average" wasn't good enough for the drill instructors. If you weren't in the top ten percent of the class, you weren't shit, and they made that perfectly clear.
It never occurred to any of them that the math wasn't adding up as boot camp went along. By the end, the top ten percent were "The best of the best." But that meant that the remaining 90% were still "The Best," and that seemed like it was a heck of a lot better than being number 156 out of a class of 313 in high school.
But the biggest difference in PFC Robert Francis Higginbotham, when he graduated from boot camp, was that he now knew he had the capacity to change the world. He didn't plan on changing the world. But he knew he could if he ever decided to. Of course he also knew lots of other things. He could survive in the most harsh conditions. If someone was yelling and spitting in his face, he could patiently stand fast instead of killing them. And, of course, he knew how to kill them.
What the U.S. Marine Corps had given PFC Higginbotham was self-confidence and a sense of pride in being extremely competent in a variety of things.
It is important, here, to reflect on an interesting point. Bob had been a completely average kid. Now he was a completely average Marine. But being an "average" Marine is not on the same qualitative scale as being average at just about anything else.
Say for example that an "average" golfer in St. Louis, Missouri, finds himself playing a game of golf with an "average" golfer from Somalia. Not that I'm bashing on Somalia, but they haven't placed a high priority on building golf courses. So naturally, the average Somalian golfer might not do as well as the average American golfer. It's all a matter of degree, and context.
This is a complicated way of suggesting that while Bob was an "average" Marine, he was still head and shoulders above the "average" blue collar worker. And I'm not bashing on blue collar workers either. But most of them aren't willing to work as long as the boss tells them to, even if that's a month straight, and almost none of them are willing to put their lives on the line for that boss. It's a fair argument that civilians aren't trained as well to do their jobs either, but I've built up the Corps enough, so let's just go on.
So the point of all this is that PFC Higginbotham was aware that he was now special, and he took that seriously. He tried hard to do the very best he could. He sacrificed sleep, comfort and even his leisure time to be the best Marine he could be.
And, in the end, he sacrificed some measure of his health as well.
He was in a place called Helmand Province, in Afghanistan, when his body was shredded by shrapnel. Modern battlefield medicine saved his life, and he tried to heal, so he could get back to the only thing he had ever done really well. But something called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder prevented a complete recovery. His self-confidence had been shredded by that shrapnel too, and the doctors didn't know how to do surgery on that. He might collapse at any moment with the shakes, sobbing, cringing, curling up in a ball. That wasn't what Marines were supposed to do.
And so, after enough time had passed that the bureaucrats were satisfied they'd done "all they could," he was medically retired from the Corps, thanked for his service, and put out to pasture.
He was a combat veteran, who had been through more pain and suffering than the average sixty year old ... and he couldn't walk into a liquor store and buy a can of beer.
Back in the States, he was welcomed with open arms by his parents. But PTSD is sometimes not comfortable with open arms. His father had a place for him at the family-owned hardware store. But Home Depot had just finished building a new store in town, and sales were already down 17%. Plus, people expected him to be the same old Bobby who had left home a little more than two years ago.
And he wasn't.
Instead, he was 80% disabled.
Except that you couldn't see what made him that way.
And finally (though it wasn't at all final) he had practically no patience at all with people who sweated the small shit. And, compared to what he'd been through in the last two years of his life, just about everything he saw around him in the civilian world classified as small shit.
It only took three months before people began avoiding him. Even his parents left him alone rather than face his volatile mood swings. He would never have hurt anyone who, in his opinion, wasn't "the enemy," but he was like a big, barking dog. While that dog might, in fact, be perfectly harmless, nobody was willing to take a chance that he wasn't.
He had only one relative who had been in the military, his mother's brother Patrick, who was a Vietnam vet. Uncle Patrick had also suffered from PTSD, though no one knew it back then. He was familiar with what his nephew was going through, because he'd had to work his way through it too. And so, when Uncle Patrick's ear got bent by his little sister, who was at the end of her rope, he came to visit from Denver, where he lived. He brought a six pack of good beer with him, and got his nephew alone on the porch one evening.
He talked of a hundred acres of wooded land he owned just six miles north of Mount Rushmore in a place called Scarecrow Valley. He had a cabin there. And he had this persistent problem with the local high school kids coming on his land for beer parties and such. They vandalized things ... cut down trees to make campfires ... broke into his cabin ... stole things. He needed somebody to "sort of live there for a while" and keep an eye on things.
It would be pretty boring. There wasn't much to do there other than read, and hike around the property. But the property abutted the National Forest to the south, so there was plenty of hiking to be had, plenty of nature to be explored and enjoyed. It was rumored there might even be traces of gold to be panned, in some of the streams in that area.
A man could catch his breath there, said Uncle Patrick ... take the time to work through difficult thoughts and emotions.
He wondered if he could prevail on Bobby to take a little time out of his life to help out his old uncle by being the caretaker "until something else could be worked out."
It was exactly what Bobby needed.
Jennifer Franks stood at the sink in the bathroom and looked dismally into the mirror. What she saw was unimpressive, at least in her eyes. There was nothing about her face to make it stand out in a crowd. Her eyebrows were too dark, and too thick. Her hair was straight and uninteresting, hanging limply to the upper slopes of her breasts. And the breasts! Even if she held the tape measure loose enough that it slipped in the back, it only registered thirty-two. She could get thirty-three if she took the deepest breath possible and held it. And if not having enough flesh to make a decent breast wasn't bad enough, the nipples were completely unmanageable. They were so pink they seemed to disappear into the flesh of equally light areolas. It was as if they weren't there at all. And yet, just as bad was that they were so sensitive that she was horny all the time if she didn't wear the bras she didn't need for support, and hated to wear.
Her glance slid down her muscled body to the hair just above her joy buzzer. That's what she had called her clitoris ever since she'd discovered how much joy it could bring her to rub it. Her Uncle Josh had shaken her hand one time wearing one of those buzzer things. She'd jerked and he'd laughed, but all she could think about at that moment was how similar that felt to what happened inside her when she rubbed hard enough, fast enough, and long enough.
That was all the sex she ever got though, and all she anticipated. Even in the twenty-first century the old saying seemed to hold true: "Boys don't make passes at girls who wear glasses." Especially when the girl involved could get away with pretending to be a boy if she wore a sweatshirt and her hair up under her hat.
She turned sideways and eyed her breasts critically. They protruded maybe three inches. Maybe.
She wished the mirror was longer. She couldn't see her hips unless she backed clear up against the wall. Then her smooth, black pubic hair and the upper swell of her hips were visible. She thought she looked like a freak, with those wide, spreading hips, and nothing up above.
Not that anybody taunted her about it. The last time somebody had taunted her about anything was when Jeffrey Simpson had said her father ran off because he couldn't stand having a buck-toothed tomboy for a daughter. That was after she'd knocked him down running across home plate, when they were both twelve. She'd knocked him down three more times before Mr. Tolliver, the teacher on playground watch, had broken it up. Her knuckles were bleeding freely from impacting his teeth, and she was lucky she hadn't knocked one out.
Her mother, Mindy Franks hadn't yelled at her when she'd had to come get her daughter at school for fighting. She knew what it was like to be a single mother, with no husband to help. She knew it also had to be very hard for Jennifer not to have a father. So she just hugged her little girl, and said they were better off without a man in their lives who didn't really love them, and not to back down from any challenge.
That had been five years back. Nobody had messed with her since then.
But nobody had asked her on a date either.
So she had gone out for - and excelled in - girls basketball during the school year, and the Keystone girls softball team during the summers. And when there was nothing else to do, she hiked. There was no paucity of places to do that. They lived up a dirt road with no name, just off of Highway 16, not quite four miles north of Mount Rushmore. It was land someone had owned, way back before the National Park service designated the sculpted mountain a national memorial, and thousands of acres of land around it as the Black Hills National Forest. Those who owned the land within that area retained title, if they didn't want to sell out to the government.
So Mindy and Jennifer lived on what they considered to be the nearest thing to paradise there was. A small lake of about twenty acres lay a hundred yards outside their back door. Wildlife abounded, particularly at the edge of the lake, and the only noise of civilization were the aircraft that moved overhead from time to time.
Of course, to a seventeen-year-old tomboy ... it was boring as all get out.
Her mother wouldn't let her own a gun, so when she hiked she carried her compound bow, and arrows equipped with hunting tips. She'd never actually hunted anything, but she liked the feeling of being "armed" as she trod the hills and valleys of the untamed forest.
It wasn't that she was against hunting. She didn't hunt because they didn't need to. Her mother worked for the memorial, and whenever a deer got hit on the highway, the staff usually got a chance at the meat. But had she wanted to, she could have taken down just about any prey out to forty yards. The bow had the strength ... and she had the skill.
After all, what else was there to do in the middle of winter, when you couldn't go anywhere and were snowed in? Nothing. That's what.
So she had five winters of constant practice under her belt by the time she decided to take a sneak peek at the man known as "The Hermit."
There were stories galore about The Hermit. That's all most folks called him, and when anyone mentioned the word "hermit" everyone knew who that was. He had a formal name, though, and that's what was used in stories about him. Around a hundred campfires, when it was time for spooky stories, someone had invariably said, "Let me tell you a story about The Hermit of Scarecrow Valley."
Those stories were like grown up versions of the fairy tales, but instead of three little pigs, there were unidentified kids who went onto his property to have a beer bust and disappeared without a trace, never to be seen again. Instead of Little Red Riding Hood, there was the girl, also whose identity was lost to the mists of time, who went onto The Hermit's property to gather mushrooms. All they ever found of her was one of her shoes ... and there was blood on it.
He was like Sasquatch, rarely seen, and thoroughly frightening. No story about him ended well for the interloper.
And, of course, there were the public stories told about him as well. Marshal Dinks worked for Balderson's Family Emporium as their delivery driver. Every week for years, Marshal had driven a load of groceries out to The Hermit's place, in Scarecrow Valley. Because people knew he delivered groceries, he was sometimes contracted to deliver other things too. But in all those years he had never seen The Hermit's face. He rarely saw the man at all, for that matter. And when he did, a hood always obstructed his view of The Hermit's face. It was Marshal's opinion that The Hermit was horribly disfigured ... maybe with a yawning hole in one cheek, with teeth sticking out through it! Or something like that.
Then there was Rusty Zoran, who drove the Propane truck in the area. He had only seen The Hermit once in all the years he'd been filling the tank on the property. The man had come out on the porch, holding what looked like a lever action 30-30 with a scope on it. He had simply watched as Rusty filled the tank. He hadn't said a word, or made a movement. Rusty hadn't seen his face either, because he had on a sweatshirt with a gray hood.
There had been a day, about a year back, just after Jennifer had gotten her driver's license, when her mother had needed something for baking. Of course Jennifer had offered to drive to town to get it. And it wasn't only to drive. Emily Parsons, who ran Balderson's Family Emporium, was one of her favorite people. Emily was in her sixties, and every child who came into the store got a stick of licorice, either red or black. Every child in town loved her, even if they didn't love licorice.
So she had stayed to talk to Emily after she paid for the flour. A man named Thomas Lemon had come into the store, obviously angry and asking for ammunition for his rifle.
"What's got your dander up?" Emily had asked, as she reached for a box of 30-06 shells on a high shelf.
"Damn hermit just run me off with a rifle is what's got my dander up!" growled Thomas. "All I wanted was the name of the owner so's I could get permission to log out there. There's practically virgin timber in there, and it's goin' to waste. And the bastard actually took a shot at me!"
"He told you to leave and you didn't ... right?" Emily had a half smile on her face.
"Alls I wanted to know was the owner's name!" insisted Mr. Lemon.
The old fashioned bell over the door tinkled as Scott Leakey, the mailman came in, dressed in natty shorts and carrying a huge, leather bag stuffed with mail.
"Mornin' Emily," he said, pulling a rubber banded bundle of mail out of his bag.
"Mornin' Scott," said Emily. "Looks like you have a partner in crime."
"What crime?" asked Scott.
"Tom, here, got run off The Hermit's land at gunpoint."
"He shot at me!" complained Thomas, who didn't appear to be injured.
"Well he wasn't trying to hit you, then," said the mailman.
"How do you know that?"
"Talk to John, over at the locker plant," said Scott. "Every year The Hermit brings him the legal limit of deer, all tagged nice and neat. And every one of them has one bullet in it, right in exactly the same place, midway between the head and shoulders. Neck shot. Every damn time."
"He still shot at me," complained Lemon.
"Told you to git, and you didn't, right?"
"How'd you know that?" asked the logger.
"Same thing happened to me," said the mailman. "Used to deliver up there when he first moved in. That was what?" He looked at Emily. "Maybe ten year ago? Met me at the mail box one day and said he didn't want any more junk mail. Told me to only deliver letters and packages addressed specifically to him."
He paused to accept a stick of red licorice from Emily, who handed them out to everyone. That was the first time Jennifer knew that others than children got the treats too.
"I told him I couldn't do that. Got to deliver all the mail. It's the law. And I kept doing it too, until the box disappeared. So I went up to the house and knocked, and told him he had to have a box or the mail wouldn't get delivered at all. He told me to leave, and when I didn't, he pulled down on me with a rifle."
He took a bite of licorice and chewed slowly.
"I decided to leave."
"So what happened to his mail?" asked Tom, curious despite himself.
"It was the damndest thing. He found a loophole in the system. He got him a post office box, and then signed a power of attorney for Millie Carleson, the postmaster, to dispose of any third class mail or mail without his or the owner's name on it, before she put it in the box. Then he signed an order to have everything in the box forwarded after three days. He forwarded it to his place out there in Scarecrow Valley and put the box back up down by the road. That's where I deliver it."
"You're shittin' me," said Lemon.
"Wouldn't do that, Tom," said the mailman with a straight face. "You're one of my favorite turds."
"Gentlemen!" scolded Emily, glancing pointedly at Jennifer.
"Sorry," said both men at the same time, nodding at the girl.
"Don't he have to pay to forward it?" asked Tom.
"Nope. It's all in postal regulations. I didn't even know about it myself until Millie explained it to me. I got to say, though, I'm glad I don't have to go up to the house any more. He's a piece of work, that one is."
"Well," said Emily. "All I know is that when he calls each week and gives me his grocery order, he sounds like a completely nice man. I couldn't say he was friendly, exactly, or talkative, but he seems normal enough to me."
"Ain't nothin' normal about him," said Scott, though there was no vitriol in his voice.
The talk had turned to other things then, and Jennifer had gone on back home. The only other information she had about The Hermit was from one of her teachers, Mr. Rogers. Actually, it was information from both Larry Rogers and his wife Elaine, who had only moved to town two years past. They had been tending the punch table at a school dance one Friday night, and Jennifer, who never got asked to dance, hung around, helping refill the punch bowl, and set out more cookies. While she was doing that, another teacher - not Jennifer's - approached the table.
"Heard you two had a run-in with our resident hermit," he had said.
"That awful man!" Mrs. Rogers had squealed.
"He wasn't that bad," said Mr. Rogers. "We were hiking on a trail back behind Rushmore, and apparently strayed onto his property. He told us we were trespassing."
"He had a gun!" Mrs. Rogers shuddered. "He's a madman!"
"The rifle was on a sling, hung over his shoulder," said Larry, leaning toward the other teacher. "He didn't point it at us or anything."
"He was so mean!" moaned Elaine. "All we were doing was hiking, and he called us trespassers! We weren't hurting anything!"
The other teacher had nodded, sympathetically. "He's an odd duck, that one. But he hasn't killed anyone ... that we know of." He grinned, but Mrs. Rogers didn't return it.
These kinds of stories and rumors were all Jennifer knew about The Hermit of Scarecrow Valley ... the man she decided to go have a look at for herself.
While Jennifer did not hunt, she acted like she did. Years of tromping through the forests around where she lived, had taught her not to tromp. Not if she wanted to see any wildlife. And there was a lot of wildlife to see, if one was quiet, and observant.
So she learned to stalk, rather than stomp. She learned how to place her foot by using it to feel the ground first, and nudge away any stick that might break and scare something away. She learned how to push a branch aside with her hand, and let it back to where it belonged, rather than just brushing by it, causing a scraping, whooshing sound.
In short, she became a woodsman ... or woodswoman, as it were ... without realizing she was even doing so.
She practiced with the bow too, though not at anything breathing. It was a game she played, part of the thrill of being in the wild. She would pick a tree, and walk past it, counting to herself. When she reached the predetermined number, she turned, drew an arrow from her quiver, notched, pulled and let fly as quickly as she could. The idea was to hit the tree.
That was harder than one might think, primarily because she had to identify which tree was the right one to shoot at. And they always looked different looking back, than they had as she walked past them.
These days, she was hitting about 85%.
Searching for the arrows that missed, and recovering the expensive shafts, with their even more expensive tips, was all part of the game.
So she was quiet in the woods, and deadly as well. At least potentially. She didn't think of herself that way, of course.
But there was someone else in the area who did.
And that person was ... The Hermit of Scarecrow Valley.
When Bobby Higginbotham had moved into the cabin on his Uncle Patrick's land, he had just naturally reconnoitered the land around it. He had first become intimately acquainted with Patrick's hundred acre wood. He had nothing but time, so he used primitive surveying techniques to plot and map the property. In the process, he found the small concrete markers that professional surveyors had constructed back when the National Park Service was required to mark its boundaries. The markers were about eight inches tall and had the latitude and longitude scratched into the plane of their flat tops.
After learning his uncle's property, he expanded his knowledge, eventually becoming familiar with land as far away as several miles. That included Mindy Franks' property, though he didn't know either her name, or that of the little girl who lived there too.
He watched them only as long as it took to learn "their nature" as he thought of it, which meant to learn enough about them to decide if they needed further surveillance. As it turned out, they did not.
He knew he was living a double standard, telling people to get off "his" property, while he routinely trespassed on others' lands around him. But he only patrolled. He didn't disturb.
Which is why he knew of Jennifer's long walks in the forest, and why he had watched her for literally years, seeing her get better, both at moving and shooting, even if she never used the bow for anything other than target practice.
She had never seen him, of course. He hadn't wanted her to. Sometimes that was because he was camouflaged, fitting in with his surroundings like the Marines had taught him to do. Most times it was because he was high in a tree.
Nobody ever looked up.
He didn't follow her. If they were both out at the same time, he watched her for a while, but then continued his patrol. He knew she was no threat. She never went on his property. She was as solitary as he was, really, though he didn't think about that much.
And of course ... he never approached her.
To Bobby, Jennifer, the girl whose name he didn't even know, was just another denizen of the forest. She left him alone ... so he left her alone too.
On the day Jennifer decided to go try to get a look at The Hermit, it just so happened it was a day for cutting wood. That is to say that she approached his property without being detected, because he wasn't on patrol that day. Had he been, it is likely he would have seen her coming, and things might have turned out quite differently.
But he was cutting next year's firewood, felling trees that needed to be removed for one reason or another. Once down, he would saw them to length and split the logs with an axe or maul. He had all the time in the world, and the exercise helped keep him fit.
His rifle was propped against a tree nearby. Where the butt touched the ground, there was a canteen and a chainsaw case that contained tools, extra chains, oil, and other supplies for the saw. He was wearing ear plugs, but to be honest, he probably wouldn't have heard Jennifer's approach anyway. She was very good, by now.
She heard the saw, of course, long before she saw him. She didn't even know it was The Hermit using the saw, but the noise drew her. She was always curious about other people in the woods, especially people who might be harming things ... like trees ... never mind that she shot them with arrows herself. She didn't cut them down!
But others did, and sometimes they had no right to do so. She thought of those people as poachers.
So she approached carefully, bow in hand, arrow notched. To be honest, she was excited. She felt ... dangerous.
The saw cut off abruptly, and she froze. She couldn't tell how far away it was any more. She knew she was close, but she sank to one knee, unwilling to move until she could hear something.
Then the sound of an axe thunking into wood came to her. She had split a lot of wood herself, and knew that sound instantly for what it was.
She crept forward.
Bobby felt eyes on him, and stopped, standing to look slowly around. He was listening harder than he was looking, but neither eyes nor ears gave him any information. He glanced toward his rifle, but didn't go pick it up. Sweat dripped into one eye, and he used the tail of his shirt to dry his face.
He started swinging the axe again. This tree was ash, and it split straight and easily. He would, over the next few months, haul the wood back to the cabin and stack it, to cure for a year. This winter he would use what he had cut last year.
The work went quickly, and he surveyed the pile he had created. He'd have to cut another tree or two. He looked around, looking for a tree that had been hit by lightning, or that the wind had damaged. He saw a Hickory tree that was growing too close to an Oak. It was only eight inches in diameter, but it would never make it with that Oak shading it out. The Oak was old. His eyes ran up it to a large hole in the side, about ten feet off the ground, where a branch had died and broken off some time in the past, and the stump had rotted.
He went and examined the bark of the oak. It was weaker than it should be. There were no branches low enough to jump for, and he hadn't brought a rope with him this day, so he simply climbed the Hickory and let his weight hang toward the Oak. The Hickory wood flexed, as he knew it would and the tree leaned until he was able to step over to a branch on the Oak tree just below the hole. He eyed it, and then reached in. The tree was hollow.
He decided to take the Oak, since it was going to die anyway in the next ten or so years. That would leave room for the Hickory to grow tall and strong. And he'd get plenty of wood from the Oak.
It was then he realized that the Hickory had sprung back, and was now six feet away. He had no way down, and he was a good twelve or fifteen feet off the ground.
Jennifer watched the man split wood. His motions were clean, economical, controlled. He never missed, and rarely had to strike twice. He'd done this a lot. She wondered if this was The Hermit. She wasn't sure where she was. She knew his land was this way somewhere, but she didn't know where. All she knew was that he lived roughly two or three miles from her house. And this man looked completely normal. He didn't have a hideous visage, or a hump, or anything like that. He just looked like a guy cutting wood.
She never thought about approaching him. She was only curious. So she stayed to watch a while longer, trying to think of some way she could figure out whether or not he was The Hermit.
He stopped splitting and then went to a big tree some twenty feet away. It was further from her, but she didn't move. She could hear his footfalls ... and that meant if she moved he could hear her too.
Then, for some bizarre reason, he climbed a tree! She watched, curiously as he then swung over to the big old tree, a Red Oak tree if she was right, and stood on a branch. She was just figuring out he had used one tree to get up into the other one when he knelt and put his hand inside the tree.
She waited to see what he would bring out. Surely there wasn't a bee hive in there. He'd be stung thousands of times if there was!
But his hand came out empty. He stood back up, looking around. This was very curious. Then, to her astonishment, he simply jumped off the branch, like he thought he was a flying squirrel or something! His arms were outstretched, as were his legs, making him look like a huge X. She almost laughed as he landed in the smaller tree he had earlier climbed, and scampered back down to the forest floor.
He went to the saw and picked it up. He moved to the big tree and walked around it. Then he put earplugs in his ears and started the saw.
She watched him notch it, approving of the direction he was going to fell it in. If it fell true, it wouldn't hurt any other trees on its way down.
She had decided this was boring, and was about to back away and leave, when a deep, cracking sound she could feel in her bones stopped her. The man was bent over, sawing opposite the notch he had made. But the whole tree was slowly turning above him. There was another crack, and the man pulled the saw away and looked up. A huge crack had opened in the trunk of the tree. It was maybe ten feet long, and was, by now, almost a foot wide. Jennifer realized the tree was hollow, and that when he cut it, the weight of the crown had caused the trunk to fail. It was twisting ... coming down ... and not in the direction he had planned.
In fact, it was falling straight toward Jennifer! And it was plenty tall enough that it would slam down on her ... no matter what she did.
She reacted as the trunk groaned and cracked more. She stood and dashed on a line perpendicular to the way the tree was falling. She saw the man running too, but then he suddenly went down and vanished from sight. She was sure she was going to be crushed, and adrenaline flooded her bloodstream. She dropped the bow, but that's all she could remember about the dash, except that the ground shook and branches and leaves flailed at her. She felt something hit her hard, and suddenly she was flat on her face. But there was nothing on top of her and she was able to stand again immediately.
When it got quiet again, she was still standing, surrounded by small branches with Oak leaves on them. She hadn't made it clear of the falling tree, but it looked like she'd made it far enough to avoid anything bad.
It was very quiet after the cracking and thrashing sounds the dying tree had made.
Now she remembered her bow, and turned to look back in the direction she had run. All she could see was Oak tree. She'd never find her bow. Not in that mess.
Then she heard the groan of a man in pain.
The man hadn't been so lucky as Jennifer. He was pinned under the trunk of the tree ... maybe crushed ... she couldn't tell for sure. He was face down, and his groans made the hair stand up on her arms.
There was no way she was moving the tree. She heard the soft putt putt of the chainsaw, still idling, and ran to find it. It roared when she squeezed the trigger and she ran back to the tree. Eyeing the trunk critically, she went about three feet away from him and lifted the saw to start cutting. The hollow trunk was only eight or ten inches thick here, and once she got through it and could cross cut, it went fast. She had to pull the blade out and climb over the trunk to get the other side. Then she couldn't complete the cut because the bar wasn't long enough. The man was moving, but not very much ... just his right hand, which was gripping the leafy floor of the forest, and then relaxing. It looked like there was only six inches of open space between the bottom of the trunk and the ground, next to him. She started a second cut and angled it in, so that she removed a foot wide section of the trunk down as low as she could reach. That revealed the part she couldn't get to before, and she used the tip of the chain to eat through the last bit. When it broke, and the piece away from the man sank to the ground, she realized she was holding her breath, worried that it would be the part on him that weighed more. But now his whole arm moved, as he fought the weight on his back.
She stepped over his head, which had been turned away from her. Now she could look down at his bearded face. His eyes looked up at her ... dark ... deep eyes. Eyes that clearly showed pain. His grimace confirmed it.
She started on the section below him, and had to do the same thing, cutting pieces out of the tree until she could reach the bottom part that the bar wasn't long enough to just cut.
Then the saw sputtered and died.
Her ears were ringing from the remembered noise of the saw, but she knew it was suddenly quiet. There would be no sounds of birds or anything else. The saw would have scared them off.
"Out of gas," he gasped. She was surprised his voice was so high. "Gas ... by ... rifle," he panted. "Hurry ... can't ... breathe."
She ran, remembering where she had seen the rifle. The little red plastic container was there. She grabbed it and ran back. She used a saw at home sometimes, so she knew what to look for. She almost couldn't get the cap loose, so tight was it, but it finally gave. She sobbed with relief. Shaking hands spilled gas, but she got the tank full.
But when she pulled the cord, nothing happened. The cord moved maybe an inch, and then stuck fast.
"Bring ... here!" He sounded awful. She got to her knees and put the saw by his hand. He fumbled for it and turned it onto one side. There was a black button that he pressed. It moved inwards a quarter inch. "Try ... now," he whispered.
This time the cord moved and the saw puttered, but didn't catch. Panic gave her strength and she jerked it again and again. Suddenly it popped and putted again, idling perfectly.
What seemed like an hour later, but was, in reality only five minutes, she finished the other cut. That left a section of trunk lying across his back that was maybe three feet long. Setting the saw on the forest floor, she stood, straddling his head, and pushed the log, rolling it down over his butt and legs. He cried out, but then bit it off and she saw his ankles jerk as his boots suddenly lay flat, pointed out in opposite directions. She took two wide-stance steps and rolled the log as hard and fast as she could. It didn't weigh as much as it looked like it should, but was still heavy and festooned with splinters where the bark and trunk were split open. Finally, it rolled over his boots and settled in the thick leaves.
The man rolled over onto his back, gasping, taking huge breaths of air. His chest moved so fast it looked like he was running ... sprinting, somehow, while lying down.
Jennifer suddenly felt dizzy and weak. The adrenaline was dumping, and suddenly she felt disoriented. She sat down, and then turned to find the off/on switch on the saw, which was still running.
She had always heard about deafening silences, but had never understood what that meant until now. The forest, after all the noise, was completely quiet, except for the rasping of his breath, and the drum someone was beating somewhere. Then she realized that was just her heart. She could feel it pounding in her chest, and hear it in her ears.
The man sat up suddenly, like a catch had been loosened, and he had springs in his spine. He rolled to all fours, and then stood up on his knees. His head turned, and he surveyed his savior with those black eyes. They looked empty now that the pain was gone.
"You're hurt," he said. His voice sounded rough, like he needed to clear his throat or something. She had no way of knowing that, before that day, he hadn't spoken a word in over two months.
Jennifer looked down at her legs, which were sticking out in front of her. She saw nothing. Then, as if his comment had given her brain the information it needed, she felt pain streak down her back. She tried to look over her shoulder, but couldn't see.
He stood, swaying a little at first, and then knelt again beside her.
"Something tore the back of your shirt and gouged you."
"The tree," she said. "It fell on me too."
He looked, but didn't touch. Then he sat back on his heels.
"You're the girl who lives by the lake. You've got a mom, but no dad."
"Jennifer Franks. Glad to meet you." Jennifer winced. Her back hurt!
"What were you doing here?" he asked.
"I wanted to see you?"
"Why would you want to talk to me?"
"Not talk to you ... see you. You're The Hermit ... right?"
"What?" he asked, sounding confused.
"The Hermit of Scarecrow Valley. Are you him?"
"You were spying." It sounded ugly, somehow. And somehow it confirmed he was, in fact, The Hermit of Scarecrow Valley.
"Not spying," she objected. "I just wanted to see what you looked like. That's all."
"Spying," he said again. It was clearly not a good word, coming from him.
"Okay, I was spying," she said. "And how is it you know where I live? And that I have a mother but no father? Sounds to me like you've been spying too."
He was silent for a few seconds. Then "True. We need to treat your wounds. My place is closer, but I can take you home too. Your choice."
"You'd let me see your house? Nobody's ever seen your house," she said.
"Nobody's ever saved my life before," he said. "Nobody around here, anyway."
He was limping, slightly. He didn't complain. And he was carrying the saw in one hand, and the case full of tools in the other. He would have carried the axe too, but Jennifer picked it up. The rifle was slung over his back. It was an old cowboy gun in Jennifer's eyes. What had Rusty, the propane man called it? A lever action. That was it.
"Where's your bow?" he asked, suddenly. He didn't look at her.
She realized that not only was her bow missing, but so was the quiver she carried on a strap, like he was carrying his gun. When the branch ripped her back, it must have torn that off too. Then she thought of something else.
"How do you know about my bow?" she asked.
"You always carry that bow when you go hiking," he said.
"You really spy on me?" Her voice went up several notches.
He still didn't look at her. "Got to know what the OpFor is doing."
"What's that?" she asked.
He didn't answer for a bit, and then said "You can Google it when you get home, but I didn't mean it that way. Not really. It just means strangers, around here."
"To you, everybody is a stranger," said Jennifer.
"I like it that way," he said. "I don't bother anybody, and I don't want to be bothered."
"I'll remember that the next time a tree falls on you," she said.
"You handled that saw real good," he admitted.
"That reminds me. How come it wouldn't start when I filled it up? What did you do to it?"
"Compression release," he said. "You start the saw with it in the release position, and it closes when the saw runs. With it closed you're fighting the compression in the cylinder. Makes it hard to turn over."
"I don't think our saw has one of those," she said.
"You probably have a thirty hour saw," he said. "When they make them to last longer than that, they cost a lot more. Most people can't afford a good saw. But then most people won't use a saw for thirty hours anyway."
"That doesn't seem like very long," said Jennifer.
"If you run it two hours a summer, that will last you fifteen summers," he said. "How often do you use your saw?"
"I would have said more than two hours a year," she said, stepping over a big log and wincing as her back complained. "But now that I think about it, I only use it for five or ten minutes at a time. We use the wood stove, but we have a propane heater too."
They were walking through scattered boulders that were made of gray granite, and stood twelve or fifteen feet high. They looked like they'd been tossed there by a giant, maybe. She wondered what kind of geological disturbance could have left them like this. They turned around one and there, not fifty yards away, was a little house.
Initially, Jennifer thought the house reminded her of a gingerbread house. Later she would laugh about that, because it looked nothing like that at all. It was an A-frame. The whole front was glass, and she could see that it had an upper floor. The exterior parts, that weren't roof, were made of logs, peeled and either stained yellow, or which had a natural, deep yellow color in the wood. The steep roof had long, green steel strips covering it. Her mother had wanted to put that kind of roof on their house, but it had been too expensive.
"Is that an ... outhouse?" Jennifer laughed.
"I have a hand pumped well inside," he said. "And an indoor toilet that runs out to a catch tank in the ground. But getting somebody to come clean it out is a pain in the ass. I just use the old outhouse most of the time."
She pointed to a large pool of water off to one side of the house. There was a trickle of water running into it on one side, and out of it on another. That trickle wandered off into the forest in both directions.
"I suppose you take a bath there?" She thought she was joking.
"Sometimes," he said, and she could tell he was serious.
"Quaint," she said.
"Most girls your age don't use words like quaint," he said as they approached the front door.
"I guess I'm not like most girls my age," she said.
"How old are you?" he asked.
"You seem to know everything about me," she said as he opened the door. "Surely you know how old I am."
Somehow, climbing the steps to the porch did something, and suddenly her back screamed at her. She realized that all his patter had distracted her from the pain. Still, the whole tree had fallen on him, and all he was doing was limping. She ground her teeth and tried to think of something other than her back.
She walked in and looked around. The lower floor was all one big room, really. There was a staircase that went up in the middle of the room. At the far end was a kitchen. Along one side was a couch, with a coffee table in front of it, and a recliner turned 90 degrees from the couch that also faced the end of the coffee table. Along the other side of the room were bookcases, maybe ten of them, side by side, all packed with books of all sizes, both paperback and hardback. A big, old fashioned pot-bellied stove stood between the kitchen and the staircase. It was beautiful, deep black almost everywhere, but with bright nickel-silver trim all over it. Everything was neat and clean, almost spotless.
"It's not much," he said. "But I don't need much." He walked toward the kitchen and Jennifer realized there was another room beyond that. A door to one side led into that. He disappeared in there, and returned with a first aid kit. She assumed it was a pantry or storage room, since she didn't see any place to store canned goods, and flour and other staples. There were no cabinets on the sloping walls. Pots and pans hung from a big rack over the propane cook stove that was under an island with a cutting board on top.
He turned her around and looked at her back.
"Doesn't that hurt?" he asked.
"It started to about half way here," she said. "It's getting worse now."
"Your shirt is toast," he said. "The only thing keeping it on is the collar. I'll loan you one of mine."
"Thanks," she said.
"Hold it against your chest," he said.
She didn't understand until she heard the clipping of scissors, and the front of her T shirt fell down. She looked at her shoulders and saw her bra strap lying loose on top of her skin there. She reached for it and plucked, only to find it wasn't fastened in back any more.
"You undid my bra!" she complained.
"The tree undid your bra," he said. "This might sting."
Something cold as ice spilled down her back, and she heard him say "Shit!" The sudden pain was incredible. It paralyzed her, making her whole body go rigid as it felt like her whole back was on fire. She leaned forward as her body tried to assume a fetal position. Her arms shot straight out and she pulled as much air into her lungs as she could get. An anguished scream tore from her throat. Dimly, she felt something scrape across her back, but it already hurt so much that she didn't feel anything more.
"I'm sorry!" he gasped. "I dropped the bottle of alcohol, and it spilled down your back. I'm so sorry!"
Already the agony was subsiding, though. Now her back felt hot, somehow. She felt his fingers touching her there.
"You're going to need stitches," he said.
She was panting, just trying to breathe and clear her eyes of the tears that had filled them when the rubbing alcohol spilled out of the bottle and washed over her back. She sat back up, slowly.
"Wait there," he said. "I'll get you a shirt."
It wasn't until he was coming back, a checkered shirt in his hands, that she realized when she sat back up, the remains of her shirt and bra had stayed on her thighs. Her upper torso was completely naked.
And for the first time in her life, a man was staring at her naked breasts.
Her hands went to cover her breasts without thinking, and she winced as that stretched the skin on her back. It was starting to feel like her back was on fire.
"Here," he said, still staring. He was holding out a shirt to her.
There were still tears in her eyes, but she could see he was looking at her. "You think you could maybe look away?" she asked.
He blinked, and looked off to her left. "Sorry. It's just been a really long time since I've seen..." He didn't finish.
"Yeah, well it's been never for me," she said, amazed that she wasn't nearly as embarrassed as she thought she should be. Even more amazing was that she didn't feel like she was in any danger at all.
He was still holding the shirt out, and she reached for it with one hand. His eyes darted back to her, but then bounced away again.
"Sorry," he said again. "I can't seem to control myself."
"You're doing a lot better than the boys at school," she said.
He turned to face away from her, and she started to put the shirt on. Her back screamed at her. The thought of having anything touching her back made her almost ill with the expectation of pain.
"I can't put it on," she said. "It hurts too much."
"You have to," he said. "I can't take you to the hospital half naked."
"I can't!" she moaned.
He turned to face her.
"If it touches the skin it will hurt," she said. "Just lifting my arms hurts. And it will stick to me. I'm bleeding, right? It will ruin your shirt."
"I don't care about that!" he snapped. "It's just a shirt. I can get another shirt. But if you don't get that tended to and stitched up, you're going to have a scar ... a big scar ... for the rest of your life. Trust me. I know what I'm talking about."
"If I lift my arms it kills me," she complained.
He stared at her. Not at her breasts, but at her. "Civilians!" he snorted. He took the shirt and held it out in front of her. "Here. Put your arms through it like it was one of those stupid hospital gowns."
She held up her arms and he moved the shirt onto them. Now he was staring at her breasts again. It made her shiver, despite the pain. It was the kind of shiver she'd never had before, and if she hadn't been in so much pain, it would have been very interesting. But she was in pain, so she pushed that into a corner of her mind. She could think about that later.
He pushed the shirt up to her chest, and then stepped around her to fasten the top button behind her head.
"Okay. That will have to do. Let's go," he said.
She stood up, which hurt, and then hunched over a bit. Somehow that eased the strain on the damaged skin. There was a big garage off to one side of the A-frame, with doors that slid sideways, like an airplane hangar she'd once seen. There was an old truck inside.
"How am I supposed to ride in that?" she asked. "I can't lean back."
"You can lean on the dashboard," he said. He opened the door for her, and then helped her step up onto the floorboard inside the door.
"Owww, owww, owww," she complained.
"Suck it up!" he snapped.
"Ow," she said, one last time, but not so miserably. She finally got settled and leaned forward on her arms and elbows. The dashboard was filthy. His house was immaculate, but this truck was horrible.
He went around the front and got in. The key was already in it, and the engine started instantly. Jennifer was surprised that the truck ran at all. The truck had been backed into the garage, so he just drove out. He did not stop to close the doors, instead driving past the house and a mail box post that didn't have a mail box on it.
That was one story about The Hermit she could attest to.
He continued down a winding rock road that merged onto another rock road that eventually connected to a paved road. He slowed before driving onto the paved road, and Jennifer realized he was trying not to slew her to the side as he turned onto the hardtop.
As he drove along, he kept glancing over at her, as if he was afraid she'd collapse. It took her ten minutes to figure out that the shirt was hanging straight down from her elbows, and wasn't covering her breasts at all. They weren't hanging down, exactly, because there wasn't anything there to hang down.
She could sit up, and deny him the view. But she was relatively comfortable where she was.
"Eyes on the road, mister hermit," she said, looking over at him with her cheek laying on her arms.
"Sorry," he said. This time he actually blushed. "You're really pretty."
She snorted and actually blew chunks of snot on her arm.
"Eww," she complained. She sat up, which hurt. There was nothing to wipe her arm with, so she just used the tail of his shirt. "You need to have them examine your head when we get there," she said, as she wiped at the arm.
"Right," he said.
When her arm was clean, she looked around. She recognized the highway, and where they were. They were still fifteen minutes away from the hospital.
"Can I borrow your cell phone?" she asked. Hers had been in the pocket of her shirt, which was back at his house.
"Don't have one," he said.
"I don't have one," he said calmly. "I don't call anybody, and nobody calls me. Well, I have a phone at the house, and sometimes I use that. But why would I need a cell phone?"
"So I can call my mom and tell her where I am, and where I'm going?"
"You shouldn't have been on my property," he said, staring out the windshield. "If you hadn't been trespassing, you wouldn't have gotten hurt, and you wouldn't need to call your mom."
"If I hadn't been trespassing, you'd be dead right now!" she snapped.
"I was going to dig myself out," he said, a little plaintively.
"I know why you're a hermit," she said. "You're an asshole, and nobody wants to be around you."
His lips tightened. He stared straight ahead.
He said nothing until they got to the hospital. Even then, the only thing he said was "Stay there. They'll want to take you in themselves."
Then he went in to talk to the medical people.
Jennifer kept saying it wasn't that bad. But the people who came out and looked at her in the truck acted like she was about to die or something. They brought a gurney, and when she got out, six people grabbed her and lifted her, yelling at each other not to jostle her or let her bend her back. They laid her ever so gently on her stomach on the gurney. She looked for The Hermit, and saw him standing to one side, talking to someone who was taking notes. For the first time she realized that his lower right pants leg was dark with what had to be blood. She couldn't believe she hadn't noticed it before.
As they started moving the gurney, one of the people talked into a walkie talkie. He described her, and then said, "extensive tissue damage, with what might be exposed spinal bone. I think she's going to need way more than we can do for her. We need to do a neurosurgery workup and alert the chopper to be ready to go stat."
"Exposed spine!" yelled Jennifer. She twisted her head to look at The Hermit, despite the pain that cause. "You never said anything about an exposed spine!"
But he couldn't answer, because they were whisking her away. Five people at once were trying to talk to her. One was asking for her name and address, and how to get in touch with her parents. Another was asking her if she had insurance. Still another was asking her what her pain level was on a scale of zero to ten, while a fourth was asking her if her vision was blurred. Finally she shouted "Shut up!" and was surprised when they all did.
"One at a time, please," she said.
The next three hours would eventually be classified as the worst three hours of her life.
Bobby sat in a corner of the ER by design. Coping mechanisms sometimes look complicated, but they are almost always very simple at heart. Someone had decided that the helicopter wasn't necessary after all, but had told him he had to stay there. Bobby Higginbotham tried his best to stay away from people. That was his coping mechanism for what ailed him. A high school science teacher would have said he was like a molecule of some gas, always trying to get as far away from other gas molecules as possible. It was that simple. In a room full of people, he found the place where there were the fewest of them. In a city, he found the place where people didn't go. In a nation, he had found a place where he might only see another human being once or twice a year. True, he interacted with people more frequently. He talked to them on the phone, or sent them payments in the mail. He had to answer questions sometimes, in the process of doing commerce. But it had been over three months since he'd had a face to face encounter with another human being.
Another part of coping with his particular situation was that he was very introspective. He thought a lot, and he thought about things in extraordinary detail. That's because he spent more time thinking about some things than most people did. I say some things because it wasn't every thing. When he went to the kitchen to make a sandwich, he didn't spend an hour deciding what kind to have, for example. But when he went for a walk - out on patrol, as he thought of it - he might take an hour thinking about what route to take, and what to take with him. If he was building something, he might think about the design for days, or even weeks, if the need wasn't urgent. He planned things out in his mind in exquisite detail before actually doing anything. And while most people, when they determine a need for some object, spend most of their time looking for a good deal in buying it, he spent most of his time figuring out if he could make it or not.
So his current situation was difficult, and his coping mechanisms were being strained to the maximum.
He was in a room full of people. People were noisy anyway, and most of these people were in pain or unhappy, and those kinds of people were quite noisy. The only people noisier than that were bullshit artists ... people like scam artists, con men, politicians and those trying to lay blame elsewhere than where it belonged ... such as lawyers. Those people were professional noisemakers, who made so much noise that a person couldn't think. And when you can't think, you can't identify bullshit when you hear it.
A number of people wanted things from him. That wasn't unusual. Most people wanted something from you. It wasn't like your unit. In your unit, all people wanted was for you to pay attention and do your job. The guys in a squad, or platoon all depended on each other, which meant that they wanted everybody in the unit to be at the top of their game. It was a matter of life and death, after all. So in a unit, you didn't take from each other. You gave to each other, to ensure that every member was as on his game as possible. You cared about whether things were going good for him back home. You cared about whether that muscle he'd pulled was healing. You cared whether he had a good book to take his mind off the fact that his girlfriend had broken up with him because he was ten thousand miles away and she couldn't take it that he might die any day without warning. You wanted him relaxed, and as happy as possible under the circumstances. So you did things for each other. You took care of each other. You loved each other.
But back in the world, people just wanted things from you. They didn't give a shit how you were doing. They just wanted you to give up something they wanted.
Like now. Two people were yelling at him, demanding to know what happened to the girl. How did she get injured? Where did she get injured? What was she doing while she got injured? Who was she? Who was he? Where were her parents? Why didn't he know what they wanted to know? Why wasn't he cooperating? Did they need to call the police?
For him it was simple. "She's hurt. You know how to fix her. So fix her! It doesn't matter where or how she got hurt. Her skin is torn. Stitch it back together for Christ's sake!" Finally he told them to leave him alone, and call whoever the fuck they wanted to call.
It was good that he didn't have a weapon, because his gut instinct was that none of these people meant him well, and might even try to hurt him.
But he couldn't leave. He had brought a buddy to the aid station, and he couldn't leave until he knew how that buddy was doing.
Two things happened that made things much better.
The first was that somebody in the ER recognized that this man probably had PTSD. That person was a paramedic, who was a vet, and who had spent time in the same places as Bobby. He recognized a brother and what that brother's problem was. He told the administrative types what he thought. He didn't have the authority to do anything else, but they listened to him and backed off.
The second was that Jennifer, used to answering questions from adults, did so, rather than resist them as superfluous, like Bobby did. She had been given a shot, and it had quenched the fire in her back. There was still pain, but now, at least, she could reflect on how amazing it was that she had done so much after being badly hurt, and wasn't even aware she was hurt at all. She mentioned that to the nurse who was putting an IV into her, and the nurse told her all about shock, and how that worked.
Her mother arrived forty-five minutes later, in full panic mode. That was made worse when no one wanted to allow her to see her daughter, but wanted her to sign all manner of forms allowing them to operate on the patient. When Mindy went into a full blown screaming rage, they finally took her to the little alcove where Jennifer had been lying for over an hour. They took her there more in an effort to get her to stop screaming, rather than because of any compassion on their part. The doctors and nurses all wanted to "protect" Mindy from seeing her daughter's injuries. Obviously, no "civilian" was capable of dealing with emotional trauma that would surely result from seeing those types of wounds. So they put a sheet over Jennifer's back. Nobody thought about the fact that this particular sheet wasn't sterile, or that they might be doing harm to the patient. They were too wrapped up in being insulted that the mother of their patient didn't say, "Of course you're right. You know best. Where do I sign?"
I won't quote what was said. Suffice it to say Mindy expressed love and concern for Jennifer, and was relieved when her daughter was able to speak back to her.
Then, after leaving the patient lying there until parental consent could be obtained (for legal, liability purposes) it was suddenly of emergency importance that the patient be whisked off to the operating room, where a full crew of surgeons stood by to save the day. Mindy was pulled back gently and forms were once again thrust in her face.
"I don't know my insurance number!" she wailed, at one point.
"No problem," said the administrative assistant with the forms. "You can go get it while they operate on her."
Bobby sensed someone standing in front of him, and opened his eyes. He had been thinking. Some people might have called what he was doing 'meditation' but to him it was just thinking. Plus people didn't usually speak to you if your eyes were closed. But this might be someone with news of the girl, so he opened his eyes.
It was the girl's mother. He recognized her from seeing her back when he had their place under surveillance.
"Are you Mr. Higginbotham?" she asked. Her voice was in the lower registers, what singers would call an alto voice. Her brow was frowning, but her lips were in a half smile, as if she were hopeful.
"Yes," he said.
"I'm Mindy Franks," she said.
Things in his memory often seemed to pop up, like a rocket at a fireworks show on the 4th of July, bursting full blown onto a dark background. Something the girl had said did that now. "Jennifer Franks," she had said.
"Jennifer's mother," he said.
He saw her eyes widen as her face went through several iterations of emotion, none of which were clear to him. He wasn't good at reading people.
"May I sit down?" she asked.
He looked at the empty chair next to him. Of course she could sit down. There was an empty chair right there. If she wanted to sit, why didn't she just sit? Then he realized she was asking his permission. He wasn't used to that.
"Yes," he said, somewhat stiffly.
"They said you brought Jennifer here," said Mindy.
"Where did you find her? How do you know her?" The woman looked scared. Bobby knew that look. He'd seen it on the faces of all his buddies. "Who are you?" she finished.
The first two questions didn't seem very valuable to Bobby. He could tell the woman where the accident had happened, probably to within fifty yards, but it would involve language that he knew she probably wasn't familiar with. Civilians didn't understand azimuths and grid coordinates. The answer to the second question was "I don't know her," and he was pretty sure that wouldn't be helpful, either. But the answer to the third question was one of the things he'd been thinking about. She had called him The Hermit of Scarecrow Valley. It sounded like an official name, though he'd never heard it before. His uncle's land was in Scarecrow Valley, and he did live what some people might call a hermit's life, he supposed. He looked at the woman.
"Apparently, I'm The Hermit of Scarecrow Valley."
The woman's face went blank and then showed what had to be surprise. "What?"
"That's what Jennifer called me."
"I don't understand!" moaned Mindy. "I don't understand any of this!" She started crying.
PTSD is a difficult malady to understand. Nobody knows much about it. More accurately, it should be said that a lot of things are known about the affliction that is, today, called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but which has been called dozens of other things in the past: shell shock ... Battle fatigue ... cowardice ... exhaustion ... and on and on. But while much was suspected or known about each of these things, none of it was assembled and put together, because nobody understood that they were all really the same thing. Add in that different people react in different ways to the problem, and even today, the medical field doesn't quite know what to do about it.
Bobby Higginbotham behaved in ways similar to someone who has autism. Eschewing too much stimulation was something he had in common with an autistic person. But he wasn't autistic. Physical contact wasn't painful or distasteful to him. And he was perfectly capable of empathy, especially when someone was in pain and misery. He understood pain and misery only too well. So while his reaction to Mindy's frustration and tears was the exact opposite of what his parents (and many other people) might have expected, it wasn't actually unusual at all. Not for Bobby.
He got to his knees and hugged the crying woman.
It was an interesting hug, on several levels.
Mindy felt the empathy in this stranger's embrace. It was the first good, strong, caring hug she'd received in ... she couldn't remember how long. He smelled good ... clean, yet like leaves ... a hint of musk. His beard felt soft against her cheek and neck. It was a very comforting and genuine hug. She'd have sworn to that in court. And as a result, she hugged him back with equal passion.
And yet, she was hugging The Hermit of Scarecrow Valley! She had also heard the stories about this man. She, like many others, had assumed he was some antisocial, surly curmudgeon. Now she was rattled by the obvious error in her assumptions. She also felt badly that she had dismissed him so easily, without ever having met him at all!
As for Bobby, this was the first hug he'd gotten from a female not in his own family in ... he couldn't remember how long. She felt soft under his hands, and the scent of her hair made him almost dizzy. Her pain seeped into him and he welcomed it, imagining his life force was cleansing hers, lightening her burden.
In this position, with him slightly lower than she was, Mindy could look down his back, to his lower legs, stretched out on the floor. She saw the bright red of fresh blood on his right pants leg. Confused, she looked over to where he had been seated, and saw a pool of blood that made the outline of his boot on the floor.
"You're bleeding!" she gasped, pushing him back. His eyes stared into hers. They were hazel, almost golden looking in this light.
"A tree fell on me," he said. "Your daughter used my chain saw and cut it off of me. She probably saved my life."
While this was information that would make any mother proud, Mindy wasn't prepared to hear it. It did not fit any possible scenario she had tried to imagine. All she knew was that Jennifer had gone out, like she always did, and that the next thing she knew the hospital was calling, wanting to do surgery on her back. Then there was The Hermit, who wasn't anything like she would have expected him to be, and now his babble about trees falling and her daughter saving his life! It just didn't make any sense.
But as she stared into those hazel eyes, something clicked inside her. She could almost hear her daddy saying, "It will be all right, Mindy. Stop crying. Everything will be all right." His voice had been magic, back then, when she was a little girl. Her ultimate faith in him was never dashed. He always had made everything all right.
It wasn't that she saw her father in this man's eyes, or heard him in her ears. He just had the feel of competency about him.
"Please ... tell me what happened," she said, her voice suddenly calm.
By the time he finished, Mindy felt much better. Jennifer couldn't be too badly hurt if she'd been able do to all that after it happened. That her daughter had risen to the challenge did not surprise her. Mindy had always had difficulty being independent, and having the confidence to solve problems. It wasn't until Mark had abandoned them, taking all their savings with him, that she'd been desperate enough to do whatever it took to survive. She'd surprised herself. But she'd never been surprised at Jennifer's capabilities. The girl was incredible.
She wasn't happy with Bobby's characterization of Jennifer's actions as "spying." Like most people who live in the forest, they think of all of it as being one big place, and not as plots, like city folk do. She had taught her daughter to leave the forest as she found it, and never waste or destroy any of God's creation.
At the same time, she was quite sure Bobby wasn't mad about Jennifer's trespassing. After all, she had saved his life. He hadn't been quite so glib in telling Mindy what he'd have had to do if it had happened while he was by himself. It all would have come down to whether or not he could clear out the leaves and mulch under his chest with his hands, giving him some breathing room, before he passed out from the pressure. She couldn't imagine trying to dig like that, scraping leaves out from under one's self just to get a little more air into one's lungs. And it would take days to dig out completely.
But she was somehow absolutely sure he'd have tried to do that. She was also pretty sure, somehow, that he would have eventually succeeded.
But he hadn't had to.
Then she asked him to describe Jennifer's injuries.
"They told me her spine was exposed," she said. "How could that be? It should have knocked her out!"
"What I saw was the white of bone down inside one really bad gouge," he said. "But it was only a little bit, and I think it was to the left of the spine. I'm not a doctor, though."
"Well thank you for bringing her here," said Mindy.
"I had to," he said.
"No you didn't. You could have called an ambulance. Most people would have done that instead of going to the effort to bring her themselves."
"She was hurt. She needed help. I had to help her." His logic was as simple as his morals. You helped each other. That was the way it was supposed to be.
A man in green scrubs approached. He looked at the man on his knees in front of the woman the nurse had pointed out as his patient's mother. Nothing had been said about a father. He also saw the bloody foot print, and the soaked pant leg of the man.
"Mrs. Franks?" he asked. "I'm sorry to intrude..."
She looked up and tried to stand. The front of her hips struck Bobby lightly in his face, and he leaned back. His injured right leg wouldn't support the weight and he rolled to fall with a groan on his right shoulder.
"Oh!" yipped Mindy. "I'm so sorry." She leaned down to help him, but he waved her away. He pointed at the doctor, and said "Talk to him."
"Mrs. Franks?" the doctor asked again.
"Miz Franks," she corrected automatically. "How is she?"
"I'm Doctor Zimmerman. It wasn't nearly as bad as we were led to believe. She said a tree fell and part of it hit her. That matches the kind of damage we found. There was one pretty deep excision that bared a section of a rib. That was what took the longest to clean out and suture. She's going to have a scar, I'm afraid. Everything else we were able to clean up and just bandage. Whoever did the first aid on her cleaned most of the wounds up pretty well before she got here."
"Thank goodness," sighed Mindy. "They said she might have spinal damage."
"Nope." He smiled, happy to give good news, for once. "She's going to be sore for a couple of months, and the scar will need some TLC for a while. That will help minimize the damage. I'll see that you get instructions, and order a special ointment for her from the pharmacy. I'm sure we got all the bark and chips and such out of the wound, but I still want to see her in my office in a week, to make sure things still look good."
"Thank you so much!" said Mindy, obviously relieved.
The doctor turned to Bobby.
"Would you, by chance, be the man she called ... The Hermit?"
Bobby winced, but then made his face go calm.
"I suppose so," he said. "I wasn't aware people were calling me that."
"She said you were hurt. I can see she was correct. Why hasn't someone looked at your leg?"
"It's nothing," said Bobby.
"I spent a decade becoming a doctor," said Zimmerman, his voice dry. "How about you let me be one, okay? There's at least a pint of blood on your pants and the floor, not counting what you lost on the way here. And I can see something protruding from the material of your pants leg. It's not bone. Based on what my patient told me, I'm going to take a wild guess and say you have a splinter that needs to be removed. Come with me and I'll get you taken care of."
Bobby resisted. He didn't like hospitals. He'd spent way too much time in them. The only reason he'd stayed at all was because he needed to make sure the girl would be all right. Perhaps, if he hadn't lost so much blood, he would have simply gotten up and walked out. But when Mindy took his arm and insisted they go with the doctor, somehow he couldn't just refuse.
Doctor Zimmerman led them through the double doors that separated the ER from the waiting area. Curtained alcoves held patients with various problems. He took them to the last alcove. Bobby was limping visibly, now.
"Take off your pants. I need to get back to the OR, but I'll get somebody in here to take a look at your leg. Don't leave." He looked at Mindy. "Don't let him leave. Got it?"
She nodded. He was already gone by the time Mindy thought to remind him that The Hermit might not want to take his pants off in front of her.
She was right. He tried to pull his pants leg up, but then winced again.
"It's stuck on something," he said.
The curtain was whisked aside by a new doctor. He had a nurse with him.
"I'm Doctor Foster. I'll be taking a look at your leg." He stared down at the bloodied pants. "Let's get you on the table," he said.
The doctor may be forgiven for assuming that Mindy and Bobby were married. Bobby was five years younger than Mindy, but with his beard it was hard to tell that. And they were in the room together. The normal routine was for the ER admin folks and nurses to screen non-family members out of the process, having them wait in the waiting room. So he just assumed that had been done, and ignored her presence.
Bobby got on the table and lay on his stomach. The doctor approached the leg and bent over. He put the tip of one gloved finger on the thing sticking out of the cloth.
"Doctor Zimmerman said there was a tree involved, but that's all he had time to tell me. How did this happen?"
"I was cutting a tree. It was hollow, and when the saw bit into it, it flexed and the trunk shattered. The whole thing came down on top of me. A girl was there and she rolled it off of me. While she was doing that I felt something stab me down there. But she was hurt too. When the tree fell, the crown fell on her. So I didn't pay that much attention to it because she needed help worse than I did."
While he had been talking, the doctor had taken scissors and cut the pants leg up the middle, from the cuff to the knee. When he laid it aside, Mindy saw two inches of bloody wood sticking out of his leg. The nurse held out her hands. In one was a small metal cup with clear liquid in it. In the other was a stack of four by four gauze pads. Doctor Foster picked up three or four pads at once, dipped them in the liquid, and started cleaning around the splinter.
"What kind of tree?" asked the doctor.
"Who cares?" blurted Mindy. "Just help him!"
"Oak," said Bobby, as if she hadn't spoken.
"Good," said the doctor. "You've got a chunk of wood stuck in you. If it's Oak, it probably won't come apart as I pull it out. But it's going to hurt. You want something for the pain?"
"No. Just do it." Bobby lay his forehead on his folded arms.
"I need to clean you up first. I'll warn you before I pull it."
Bobby made no response. The doctor used more squares of gauze to wipe the calf clean. At one point the nurse asked "What is that?" but all the doctor said was "Old injuries. I need more gauze."
"You used them all," said the nurse.
"Well go get some more then," said the doctor. His words were testy, but his tone of voice was not.
When the nurse left, Mindy could see the scars. It looked like there were hundreds of them, thick, white lines, about an inch long, and maybe an eighth of an inch wide. They dotted and criss-crossed all the skin she could see. It looked like his leg was covered with dead inch worms that had somehow become scars.
"Afghanistan or Iraq?" asked the doctor, swabbing iodine around the wood sticking out of the man's leg.
There was a distinct pause. Then: "Afghanistan," said Bobby's muffled voice.
"Thanks for your service," said the doctor.
"Yeah," said Bobby.
The nurse returned and stood by the doctor again. Despite her desire not to, Mindy moved so she could see what they were doing.
"You ready?" asked Doctor Foster.
"Go for it," came The Hermit's soft voice.
The exposed wood was long enough that the doctor could wrap a rubber glove around it and then grip it with his gloved fingers. He didn't pull it quickly, like taking off a bandage quickly. That's what Mindy expected. Instead, he looked like he was easing it out, moving it in a small circle as he did so. It looked like it must hurt horribly. Bobby's other leg went stiff and his toe kicked the table three times.
"Sorry," said the doctor. "I don't want to leave anything in there. If I do, you'll have to go see Doctor Zimmerman, up in his operating room."
Bobby said nothing, and Mindy watched as what turned out to be a four inch long spear of wood was pulled from his leg. She covered her mouth with her hand, but didn't cry out. The doctor soaked up blood, and then pushed and pulled at the open wound. Mindy wanted to yell at him for torturing his patient, but she bit her tongue. She knew he had to do this.
The nurse came back with a paper-wrapped parcel of gauze squares. The doctor used a third of them to wipe away blood, and then finally pressed several there and taped them down.
"I want to see you in two days," he said.
"I don't have insurance," said Bobby, who wasn't quite panting.
"I don't care," said the doctor. "Just come to my office so I can make sure there's no suppuration. I left the wound open instead of stitching it so it can drain if there's anything still in there. I want to see it in two days. Got that?"
"Yes sir," said the man lying on the table.
The doctor turned to Mindy, still under the impression they were married.
"Make sure he comes to see me."
"I will," she said, and was surprised to find that it felt perfectly normal to take on that responsibility.
When they brought Jennifer out, she was wearing Bobby's red checkered shirt.
"Where did you get that?" asked her mother.
"My shirt was torn up by the tree," said Jennifer, who was quite happy, seeing as how the pain killer they had given her had kicked in. "It was torn down the back, so he gave me a shirt." She pointed past Mindy to The Hermit, who was standing now, and looking a little nervous.
"Thank you," said Mindy, over her shoulder.
"No sweat," he said. His voice had gone soft again, and was hard to hear. "I'm glad you're going to be okay," he said to Jennifer.
"We'll follow you home," said Mindy. Having learned that The Hermit of Scarecrow Valley wasn't at all like the stories she'd heard, she was now curious about where he lived, and what that looked like. "We'll get her shirt and you can have yours back."
"That's not necessary," he said. "She can just keep it. I have more."
"Of course you do," said Mindy. "That's not the point. You were nice enough to loan it to her, and we always repay our debts."
He was still arguing with her when they got to the parking lot, but it did no good. He was used to barking at people to make them leave him alone, but he couldn't bark at this woman.
And that's how Mindy Franks became the first woman in decades to see the inside of the A-frame house owned by Gerald Higginbotham, and lived in by his nephew. Well ... the second woman, come to think of it. Her daughter had beaten her to it. She looked around interestedly while he went to get the shirt, and was drawn to the book shelves. It would have taken hours to scan all the titles, so many were there, but she saw that the various genres were all there. She saw Shelley's Frankenstein and giggled. Her mother had been named after Mary Shelley, and had always joked around, calling Mindy her little monster. As she grew up, Mindy had seen her mother re-read that book at least three times.
She had opened a book by Zane Grey when Bobby returned. In his right hand he held the shirt, ripped and bloody. In his left he held the torn bra. Mindy looked at the shirt, which was obviously ruined, and was horrified at the amount of blood on it. She took the items, wondering why the bra had been taken off. Then she saw the hooks had been ripped out of the fabric.
"She can't wear this," said Mindy. "I'll launder your shirt and bring it back to you."
"Really," he insisted. "That isn't necessary. She can just keep it."
"Nonsense," said Mindy. "This shirt makes it quite clear that she would have been in bad trouble if you hadn't helped her. I wouldn't be able to sleep at night if we took advantage of your kindness."
"If I hadn't been cutting down that tree, she wouldn't have gotten hurt at all!" he argued.
"And if she hadn't trespassed, then you could have done what you liked without having to worry about hurting anybody!" complained Mindy, unaware she had used the very word she had objected to him using at the hospital.
"But if she hadn't trespassed, I'd probably be dead right now," he contended.
"So!" Jennifer's rather too loud voice stopped the bickering pair. "Is this how married people fight?"
Both adults stared at her, and then glanced at each other, then relaxed tense shoulders together. Mindy tried to laugh it off.
"Tell you what. I'll wash the shirt when we get home. You can come over for dinner tonight and get it back."
"I couldn't do that," he objected, thinking about how it had been literally years since he'd eaten in anyone else's presence. He stayed away from people ... he didn't go to dinner at people's houses.
Mindy waved a hand. "I know you're a hermit and all that. And that's fine. But this is different. You already know us. Please ... come to dinner. I promise I won't ask you a bunch of awkward questions or anything. We'll just have a nice, quiet meal and you can get your shirt back. It's the least we can do for you helping Jennifer."
They could see him vacillating, but the fear apparently won out. "Thanks ... but I can't."
Mindy stepped back. "Okay, but I'm going to set an extra place, just in case you change your mind. You're welcome to come. We're having chicken fried steak tonight, and mashed potatoes. I think I still have some ears of corn in the freezer and they need to be used up."
His eyes went unfocused and he sighed. He couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten like that. "It sounds nice," he admitted. Then he realized what was happening and he stiffened. "But I can't. Thanks, but I have too many things to do around here."
"Your choice," said Mindy, admitting defeat. "Let's go, Jenn. You need some rest. You can bring him his shirt back when you're well enough to hike again." She turned back to Bobby. "She can bring you the shirt ... right? You won't shoot her for trespassing or anything ... right?"
He was visibly upset. "I'd never shoot her!"
"Good," said Mindy. "Thank you very much for helping her when she needed it."
"You're welcome," he said, automatically.
For Jennifer, though, mere words weren't enough. She felt like she had a bond with this man, even though she still didn't know his name. She came towards him, a little unsteadily, because the pain medication was making her woozy. He stood, stiffly as she hugged him, sliding her hands between his arms and his chest. He raised his arms, but didn't hug her back. Partly, that was because he didn't want to touch her back. But this was also a different situation than when he had hugged Mindy. Then he had been empathizing with her pain and grief. This was something different. She was offering him affection, and he felt vulnerable, offering himself in a return of that dangerous emotion.
It was even worse when she kissed his furry cheek.
"Thanks," she whispered. "I'm sorry I spied on you."
The last thing Mindy said as she waved goodbye was, "Remember, six o'clock. There will be a place at the table for you."
On the way home Jennifer leaned her head against the window, where it met the door post. Mindy glanced down at the bloody shirt and broken bra on Jennifer's lap. It occurred to her, for the first time, that at the point where Jennifer put the shirt on that she was still wearing, her upper body had been completely bare. Thinking back to the A-frame's design, she could remember no place that could have provided privacy. Even the toilet was exposed.
"Honey?" she said.
"Mmmm?" Jennifer wasn't dozing, but was close to it.
"Where was Mr. Higginbotham when you put his shirt on?"
"Who's Mr. Higginbotham?" asked Jennifer. Her mind was fuzzy enough that she didn't connect the name to "his shirt."
"He's The Hermit," said Mindy, figuring that was the easiest way to answer. It suddenly occurred to her that she didn't know his first name, and she felt guilty for not asking.
"Oh. He put it on me. I couldn't lift my arms because it hurt too bad."
"So he saw you ... naked?"
"No, Mom," said Jennifer, dragging out the name in that way only teenagers specialize in. "I had my pants on!" She said it as if it should have been obvious.
"So he saw your breasts?"