The Hermit of Scarecrow Valley

by Robert Lubrican

Chapter : 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6-23 Available On

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Chapter One

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.

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