In this excerpt from Chapter 6 of my novel-in-progress Carbon Run, Bill Penn has escaped into the mountains of southern Oregon. He’s running from the law, unfairly accused of a serious environmental crime. With his basset hound nearby, he nurses burned hands after using a forest fire to cover his escape. He meets a hermit, who is none too friendly.
“Stand still,” the hermit said, moving to Bill’s right. The hermit sighted down the barrels, his cheek resting on the stock, both eyes open. He lifted his head an inch, scanning Bill’s body. Bill noticed the large metal stud in his ear, like Anne’s. He had a new model com.
“Take your shirt off,” the hermit said. “Slowly.”
“Don’t ask questions. Do what I tell you.”
Gingerly, Bill unbuttoned his dirty cotton shirt, wincing as he worked the fasteners with his trembling, burnt fingers. He lifted the shirt-tails out of his jeans, slipped the shirt off his shoulders, and let it drop to the ground.
Maxie found her courage and growled weakly.
Bill growled himself. “Maxie! Quiet!”
The corner’s of the hermit’s mouth twitched. “Smart man.” He waved the shotgun barrels. “Turn around.”
Bill did a three-sixty. “Look, I’m heading to the coast. I’ll be far away in an hour.”
“Shut up.” The hermit relaxed a bit. “Do you work out?”
“Lift weights? Isometrics?”
“I’m a farmer. Robots can’t do everything.”
“True enough,” the man said, stepping around a tree into the dry part of the creek bed where the footing was better.
He stopped behind Bill. “Take that knife off your belt and throw it behind you.”
The knife had a five-inch blade and a bone handle with fancy-work Bill wove himself. He had worn it on his hip in a heavy leather sheath since he was a teenager. A good knife was a seaman’s best friend, not only in a fight, but in a gale when you had to cut a line to save your life or your ship. It sat on his left hip, where he could reach over easily with his right hand. Reluctantly, taking his time, he unsnapped the sheath, lifted the knife from his belt, and tossed it over his shoulder. He heard it land and the hermit stepping back to pick it up.
“Nice. Any other weapons?”
Bill turned. The shotgun was still pointed at him.
“Tell me you’re not a government agent or a policeman.”
The hermit paused, weighing Bill’s words and demeanor. He lowered the stock from his face and rested the butt of the shotgun on his hip, the barrels pointed into the trees over Bill’s head. He clicked on the safety and relaxed. “I know an agent when I see one. You’re not one of them. Put your shirt back on.”
Bill picked up his shirt and donned it carefully. “Can I have my knife back?”
The hermit put it in his left pants pocket. The butt of a small pistol protruded from the other pocket. “I’ll think about it.”
The man’s eyes were on Bill’s hands. “What happened to you?”
“My dog and I got caught in a forest fire. I got burned a little.”
“You from town?”
“No, I’ve got property in Brier Valley.”
“You talking about the fire a couple of days ago, near Johnson’s Camp?”
“Maxie and I were hiking, the fire moved too fast for us.” Bill flexed his puffy and tender fingers. He doubted he could defend himself. The visitor was still ten feet away, too far for a wild swing.
The hermit was calm, but wary, and his small eyes narrowed. “Seems to me that you would’ve gone into town to take care of those hands, or gone home at least. Brier Valley’s miles back that way.” He indicated east with a twist of his head. Streaks of light from the rising sun underlined his point.
“I guess I’m lost.” Though he didn’t know his specific position, Bill knew he had hiked ten or twelve miles due west of his homestead. Bill hoped the man wouldn’t consider the statement a lie.
“Lost, eh?” The hermit sidled over to Bill’s open backpack, which was propped up against a rock. He pushed the pack over with a foot, and Bill noticed the man’s good quality walking shoes. The micro-fiber soles were scuffed and worn. Some of the backpack’s contents spilled out, and the hermit leaned down to get a better look, keeping the barrels pointed upward, though in the general direction of Bill.
“Sir, please don’t take anything. If you need food, I can give you some.”
“You’re a liar. You’ve got enough for a long hike, several days, by the look of it.” The hermit lowered the barrels a couple of inches, as if he was having trouble deciding whether Bill was a threat. “Where were you headed?”
Bill’s mind raced for an answer. “Indian Lake.”
The hermit shook his head. “You’re lying again.” He lowered the shotgun and flicked off the safety. “You’ve gone about twenty miles in the opposite direction.”
“Like I said, I got lost.”
“Three times a liar. You’ve been sent to find me. Took you guys awhile. I ought to kill you right now.” The man lifted the stock to his cheek.
“No, sir.” Sweat trickled down Bill’s face and his heart raced. He had nowhere to run and nothing to lose by telling the truth to this paranoiac.
“Wait. I truly don’t know exactly where I am. But I’m heading west. To the coast.”
The man lifted his head again, as if recognizing Bill’s face. “What’s your name?”
Bill saw no point in lying again. “Bill Penn.”
“Penn. Penn! I’ve seen your picture, before the news links were purged. Now things are making more sense. You’re the guy who burned down the refuge, wiped out a species.”
“It was an accident.”
“I would’ve thought you’d be in jail.” The man again lifted the shotgun barrels and stepped toward Bill, who scuttled backwards, losing purchase in the loose gravel and raising a cloud of dust. “I bet you’re on the run. Am I right? Well?”
“Who from?” The hermit edged closer, the barrels hovering over Bill’s shoulder.
“Who’s after you?”
Bill glanced to his left and right.
“It’s BES, alright,” the hermit said. “The fear is in your eyes. Only environmental security agents make people afraid like you are.”
Bill licked his lips.
The hermit smiled. He was close enough to Bill that he could smell his breath. “Which agent is it? Some of them are nasty devils. Cut your throat to save a tree and claim you were going to saw it down.” Keeping one eye on Bill, the wiry man climbed up a large rock. It gave him a good view of the gulch. “Oh, I bet I know who’s after you. Kilel, isn’t it?”
“I knew it! Ha! She’s the best. The very best.” The hermit had an air of dark experience.
“How did you get away from her?”
Bill said nothing.
“Oh, don’t worry about me,” the man said. “I’m no friend of hers or the agency.”
Bill told the tale of his escape. He left out the part about meeting up with Anne at his property.
“You’re lucky, Bill, though I don’t expect your luck to last long. She was first in her class at the academy, she’s got a record that’s the envy of every ES agent on the planet.”
“How do you know so much about her, Mister, ah …”
“Oh, sorry to be impolite. I had to check you out first, to make sure you weren’t sent to look for me. My name’s Bobcat.”
“Sort of a nom de guerre, I suppose. Creates a nice image in the mind, don’t you think? Crazy loner in the outback. Woo-hoo-hoo!” He twirled a finger by his temple. “Marketing people in New York West would call it branding.”
“So how do you know about Kilel?”
“I hired her.”
Comments welcome. What do you think is Bobcat’s backstory?