copyright 2009 by James Robert Smith.
The old man walked out of the forest after a very long time. He was tired and hungry and he needed a car.
When he emerged from the forest he was still engaged in thought and was not paying specific attention to the details of his immediate surroundings. The forest in which he’d hidden himself for so long was green and lush. His initial goal had been to hide as far as possible from the sights and sounds and smells of Mankind. In that he had achieved a small measure of success, but one was never completely out of earshot of airliners and fighter jets using the Georgia hill country for training maneuvers. And no matter how deeply you tried to hide yourself, the stench of machines invariably found its way to any particularly sensitive nose. And the old man’s nose was extremely sensitive.
His legs ached from the long hike out of the deep cove where he’d spent most of the preceding weeks. So he found a good spot and rested there, his squat body and current posture causing him to look fat, rather than robust.
He had spent many nights gazing up at the heavens when the skies were clear and the tree cover was not too overbearing. In fact, he’d found a spot deep in the forest beside a trout pool where an enormous poplar had fallen, causing a break in the old growth canopy. At that spot he’d been able to look up to see the starry sky.
And, as had been the case for many years, he’d been disappointed at the sight that was afforded him, knowing what he was being denied. The skies were pale visions of what they had once been. Man had blinded the dark orb of the heavens with the twin curses of particulate infection and light pollution. It had been too long since the old man had been able to look up and see the sky as Nature had intended it to be seen. This was something that concerned him, and this was something he intended to remedy and was why he knew the time was ripe. This was why he had come out of the forest, tired, anxious, needing a car.
Lost in these thoughts and concerns, he had chosen to ignore the sudden presence that he’d sensed, albeit obliquely. When the first voice came to him, he sighed and looked up, mildly angry with himself for intentionally ignoring the intrusion on this last bit of solitude before he once again plunged into the crowd he knew as Mankind.
His eyes flicked upward beneath his brow and the rim of his hat. This hat was old and worn and was seeing the last of its useful days. A hat was yet one more thing that he would need as he turned his path toward the cities. He was a very unusual looking sort, and he found it important to hide his unique features beneath big hats with wide brims. No matter his red and wiry beard, his enormous cape of rough ochre hair; a good hat was needed to blunt the shock of his singular skull. Turning his face to his right, he listened to the pair of fellows muttering to one another as they walked toward him. Although they would have been shocked to know, he could hear each word they said quite clearly.
“Look at that old man,” the taller of the two said. “I can’t believe we got this lucky.”
“Who would have thought?” Said the shorter.
The old man looked at them as they walked toward him. Two Caucasian males. One a shade over six feet tall, one hundred and seventy-nine pounds. The other was, perhaps, five feet nine inches tall, also around the same weight. Both were slightly blonde-ish, their hair going to brown as they passed through their twenty-fourth year. He grunted as he watched them walk toward him. They were familiar with one another and had walked this particular walk before. He would have grinned, but already he could feel the blood beginning to pound in his chest.
“Think he has any money?” The tall one was now picking up the pace. He was anxious to get started.
“Maybe. He’s either been camping or he’s lost. Either way he probably has something worth taking,” replied the shorter youth, moving up to keep pace with his companion.
When they were close enough so that they were assured that the old man could not duck into the forest and, perhaps, escape from the situation, the pair drew up and hailed him. He sensed their clumsy ruse and chuckled lightly to himself, feeling his heart pounding and his fingers itching to get things started.
The old man looked up at them and met their gaze. The shorter of the two fellows wilted just a bit, unable to tell if the reddish hue he had seen was really the old man’s eyes, or just a trick of the late summer sun.
“Mister! I’m talking to you.”
The old man just continued to sit. He’d tensed, though, and was ready to move.
“Fuck it,” the leader said. He reached back and retrieved the pistol from where it was tucked into his belt slightly behind his right hip. The old man had already smelled the familiar scent of gun metal and oil. The kid at least kept his gun in working order, he realized.
“Hey, old man, we’re talking to you. You need to pay attention when we talk.”
If the ancient figure had wondered why he had plunged himself into the deep forest for meditation, he had to look no further than this pair. He’d not even properly emerged from these woods and already he was under assault. It had always been so, and would continue thus, until he finally did something about it. And, he knew, the time had finally come. The seeds he'd planted almost two decades before had come up, and the fruit was ripe on the vine. This was why he had come out, and this was why he needed that automobile.
The old man stood up.
The pair halted in their tracks. The old man was taller than they had thought. Seated on the leaves, beneath the poplar tree, he had appeared short and quite fat. But now that he was standing to full height, they saw that he was not quite six feet tall, and the illusion of fat had been created by the amazing breadth of his shoulders and the density of his torso above a pair of bowed and muscular legs clad in faded jeans. And the man’s hands were huge—enormous knuckles like small hammers above thick, gnarled fingers adorned with cracked nails showing the dark crescents of days spent deep in the forest without benefit of soap and hot water.
The situation had become quite the unfortunate one for the two companions. The old man had become completely aware of them.
Billy Wayne Riddle and Toby Wishon were not, strictly speaking, local boys. They did, in fact, hail from a distance of three counties, the one that they called home bordering the Georgia/Alabama state line. This area was not unknown to them, but it was farther afield than they were accustomed when they were on the prowl.
And currently they were certainly on the prowl. Funds were not just low, but almost completely exhausted. Even Billy Wayne, who normally got the lion’s share of whatever they took, had a grand total of seven dollars in his wallet. Toby, his pal and backup, had three bucks and some loose change rattling around in his front pocket.
Of course they had the gun. That was what mattered. They had the gun and an old man in their sights. Maybe the old man was a bit bigger than they had at first assumed, but he was still just one old man. In the past, they’d sometimes had good luck accosting hikers at trailheads and at campgrounds that they could reach (or nearly reach, in this case) with Billy’s car.
After the initial shock of finally recognizing that the stranger’s physique was not lard as they’d first thought, but probably more bone and muscle, the two predators collected their wits and Billy Wayne rallied all the courage the pair of them would need. In unison, Toby following, they found the necessary will in their step and edged forward.
“Well, we can dispense with the bullshit,” Billy Wayne told the old man. He held the pistol out, almost cradling it in his palm so that the gnarly fellow could see the .357 in all of its well-oiled mass. “My pal and I are in need of some money, old fellow. And so you need to hand over whatever you have.”
Behind Billy Wayne, Toby stood and smiled, his clean-shaven face looking far younger than his twenty-four years. He might easily have passed for the blonde high school punk he’d been seven years before when he’d walked away from school forever, a grade shy of graduating.
The old man stood his ground and seemed to be glaring at the pair. He neither said anything nor made a move to comply with the demand that Billy Wayne Riddle had made. The leader of the pair of pathetic outlaws felt a prick of impatience as the silence dragged on for another few seconds. Something was telling him to hold back, to keep a few extra feet of space between himself and the aged target, but he chose to ignore this tiny instinct scratching ineffectively at his scalp.
“I ain’t going to tell you again, old man.” He cocked the pistol. He’d stolen the gun in one of his very first robberies. It had been in the glove compartment of a car that had been the object of a smash and grab when he was just nineteen years old. That gun had seen some action in the intervening years and he knew how to use it. He didn’t particularly enjoy firing it, but he had been known to do so when he had to.
“Just give us your wallet, old man,” Toby said, standing safely behind his pal. “Don’t make us shoot you.” Even though only Billy Wayne had a gun.
There were a couple more seconds of silence. Billy Wayne and Toby tried to see into the old man’s eyes, but the shade being cast by the tall poplar tree and the brim of the guy’s broad hat prevented them from getting a good read of his face. He was just a wrinkled, hairy, old man as far as they could tell. The barrel of the pistol began to edge toward the old man’s torso.
“All right,” the man said, his voice low and rough, like a heavy tire rolling over wet gravel. “I’ll give you my money.” And he reached slowly into his back pocket and when his hand came back to where the two robbers could see, it was holding a wallet. The wallet was thick and very fat. Green bills seemed to want to spring from it—it was that packed with money.
“Fuck,” Billy Wayne Riddle said.
“Shit,” Toby Wishon added, his own voice low and whispered.
The old man held the wallet out. Billy Wayne tapped his companion in the gut with the back of his left hand. “Go get it,” he said to Toby.
Toby scrambled forward. His eyes were on the wallet. The wallet was barely able to fold in half, so heavy it was from the mass of greenbacks held within it. Even if every bill there was a one, it was still enough money to keep them going for a couple of days, at least. Booze and pills and gas money. If the bills were larger denomination...well, they’d never seen that kind of cash. Toby all but trotted up to the old man, his eyes glued to the wallet and not giving their victim a second thought as he focused solely on the cash.
“Gimme that money, motherfucker,” Toby grunted, reaching for the wallet. He felt his fingers touch the leather surface of it. He could all but smell the familiar and fleeting scent of the folding money. Nearby a hornet buzzed on the thick, warm air. He tugged on the wallet, but it did not come free of the old man’s fingers. Toby pulled a little harder, but the wallet stayed put.
He locked eyes with the old man.
His first and only thought was that it had not been his imagination that the old man’s eyes had been red. They were. They would be forever for Toby, because the next thing that happened was that the old man let go of the wallet and in one impossibly quick movement he pushed the enormous crowbar fingers of his right hand through Toby Wishon’s forehead. The youth was instantly dead and his body was still crumbling to the earth when the old man leaped over it and was a blur headed toward Billy Wayne Riddle.
Riddle had seen something in the wake of that initial action. It had just been the merest hint of red. Something like a mist or spray moving out from Toby’s head. Whatever it had been, it had been enough for Billy Wayne to raise the pistol a couple of more inches and squeeze off a shot.
“Damn,” said the old man. He was surprised to feel the bullet whiz past the space between the left side of his neck and his trapesius. The kid had been faster than he’d thought. Even so, it was far too late for the punk to do anything more than scream and die.
When the rage passed, the old man looked down. Both men were very dead, their brains dashed from their skulls. Blood littered the forest floor and bits of brain matter were scattered over the green of the logging road. Looking around, the old man retrieved his wallet and his small bag of items that still lay beneath the poplar tree where he’d left them. Pausing for just a moment, he riffled through Billy Wayne Riddle’s pockets until he found what he was looking for.
Well, he was still tired.
But at least he had a car.